Serving Students Means Promoting Attendance Supports, Not Absenteeism Penalties
When it comes to attendance, every day counts: regular school attendance is one of the most powerful ways we can set students up for success in school and in life. If you follow local DC news, you’ve likely heard discussion of attendance and related community and government officials concerns about the chronic absenteeism of DCPS’ graduating seniors. Though the spotlight is focused on Ballou High School, we know that Ballou is not the only school with students facing challenges in attending class consistently. We also know that students will be best served if we take a comprehensive approach by implementing strategies that support good attendance, not by implementing strict absenteeism penalties.
District-wide, 1 in 4 students are chronically absent, and when students enter high school, that rate doubles.  There are many reasons why a high school student may struggle with attendance– transportation barriers, the pressures of caring for a younger sibling, supporting a sick parent or having to navigate unstable housing or unsafe neighborhoods. It’s also likely that high school is not the first time students in the District are facing challenges related to consistent attendance.
Despite this focus on high school attendance, it’s critical to understand that regular attendance equips students of all ages, from Pre-K and beyond to succeed. That’s why this conversation is not complete until we also consider how to more effectively support DC students early and across their entire academic journey.
For our youngest students, Pre-K – 3rd grade, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more school days – generally about 18 – 20 days per school year. As our 2014 policy report Attendance Counts from the Start emphasizes, curbing chronic absenteeism, especially when a student is young, can positively impact a student’s future success. And, across the educational system, reducing chronic early absenteeism has the potential to narrow the achievement gap and improve lifetime prospects for all DC students. Even after controlling for family income, race, disability status, attitudes toward school, socioemotional development, age at kindergarten entry, type of kindergarten program, and preschool experience, chronic early absenteeism is strongly tied to a student’s proficiency in third grade reading and math - which in turn, is a large predictor of later academic success and high school graduation. For example, a Baltimore study found that 25% of students who were chronically absent in Pre-K and kindergarten were held back in third grade, compared to 9% of non-chronically absent students. Unless a child attains essential social and academic skills by 3rd grade, we know that these early effects will linger.
In addition, though chronic absenteeism reduces outcomes for all children, its effects are even more acute for children living in low-income families. In fact, one study found that the academic consequences of chronic absenteeism in kindergarten were twice as severe for students from low-income families. This is especially relevant for the District given that 42% of DC children live below 200% of the federal poverty line.
We need our District leaders at all levels to work together to promote attendance and reduce the effects of absenteeism. Examples of initiatives and policies developed by our city leaders, such as the Mayor’s Every Day Counts attendance campaign and Councilmember Grosso’s public hearings on the Graduation Rate Accountability, are encouraging. However, we must challenge them to focus more energy on how to best support student attendance, and less on how to penalize those who are absent. This means understanding and reducing barriers to attendance. To do so, schools must authentically engage with students and parents to better understand the motivators to attendance. Ultimately, when we promote attendance policies that begin early in a child’s school years and respond to student and community- specific surroundings, we empower our children to achieve.
 Epstein, J. L., & Sheldon, S. B. (2002). Present and accounted for: Improving student attendance through family and community involvement. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 308-318.
 https://www.dcactionforchildren.org/sites/default/files/DCKIDSCOUNT_ Early%20Absentee%20Policy%20Brief_April2014.pdf
 Romero, M. & Lee, Y. 2007. A National Portrait of Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades. New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty: The Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia.
 Connolly, Faith and Olson, Linda S., Early Elementary Performance and Attendance in Baltimore City Schools’ Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, Baltimore Education Research Consortium, Baltimore, Md., March 2012.