Category School News
Author Andrew Myers

At White House summit, Balfanz introduces “Digital Backpack” to combat chronic absenteeism.

Overcoming chronic absenteeism is an all-hands-on-deck moment for American education, the Everyone Graduates Center’s Robert Balfanz told fellow attendees at the White House’s May 15 Every Day Counts Summit.

“The data tell us that we have to have a comprehensive, systematic approach,” Balfanz said while sharing an action plan developed by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins School of Education and Attendance Works. “The scale and intensity of this challenge requires that if we just have one-off strategies or bet the ranch on doing one thing well, we’re not going to move the needle.”

The Domestic Policy Council at the White House organized the summit to respond to the doubling of chronic absenteeism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more class days in a given year, or about two days per month—hence, the summit’s theme: “Every Day Counts.”

The problem of chronic absenteeism is not new, but it hit an all-time high in the 2021-22 school year, reaching districts that had not had to confront it in the past and exceeding existing responses in places where it had been high before the pandemic. Over two-thirds of students attended schools where 20% or more of students were chronically absent, which is when it impacts all students, as teachers expend valuable class time catching up those who are missing class frequently.

Balfanz introduced “The Digital Backpack,” a list of publicly available resources to address chronic absenteeism compiled by the National Partnership for Student Success Support, as well as a three-step approach schools and districts can use to counteract chronic absenteeism:

  • Increase school connectedness and family engagement.
  • Invite students and families into the process of identifying causes and defining solutions.
  • Mitigate learning loss and social disconnection with high-impact tutoring and summer learning activities.

To that end, attendees, including governors of the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island and the superintendents of education for the states of Alabama and Indiana, shared details of the comprehensive efforts they have taken to more fully engage students and families in their schools. Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee, for instance, highlighted Learn365RI, an initiative that offers year-round learning and career preparation.

Balfanz meanwhile encouraged schools to create or, if they already exist, to expand student success teams to bring all those hands together to succeed. Such teams, he noted, must be empowered with actionable, real-time absentee data that can spot emerging patterns and trends across grades, sub-groups, and time.

For its part, the White House plan of action included greater prioritization and reporting on absenteeism and four additional engagement strategies:

  • Increase communication with families to foster a “culture of attendance.”
  • Visit families of chronically absent students at home.
  • Enhance school relevance to develop students who “want to be there.”
  • Connect families to health care, housing, childcare, and other social supports.

“We all know that the most significant challenge we are facing in schools today is absenteeism,” said Neera Tanden, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “That is why we cannot accept chronic absenteeism as the new normal.”

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