U.S. Conference of Mayors passes resolution calling on mayors to launch campaigns combating chronic absence

The U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously adopted a resolution on June 16 urging mayors to raise awareness of the pernicious effects of chronic absenteeism on student achievement and engage the community to help parents get children to school regularly. The resolution, introduced by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras with support of 12 other mayors, cites Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious work to reduce absenteeism in New York City and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s broad efforts to persuade 124 communities across the country to start paying attention to chronic absence as part of a strategy to improve literacy in the early grades.

“For our cities to close the achievement gap and reduce dropout rates, we must get a handle on chronic absenteeism at every level,” Mayor Taveras said. “No matter how much we improve our schools, it won’t matter if kids are not in their seats to benefit. Ending chronic absenteeism requires all hands on deck.”

Chronic absence—missing 10 percent of the school year in excused, unexcused or disciplinary absences—is recognized by researchers as an early warning sign of academic trouble and dropping out. But many school districts don’t track this metric, relying instead on school-wide attendance averages.

“The mayors’ decision to champion chronic absence will ensure that more cities monitor this important data point and use it to guide action,” said Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and a senior vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “This is a problem we can solve when we begin to look at the right data.”

As many as 7.5 million students nationwide miss nearly a month of school each year, and those absences correlate with weaker academic performance and higher dropout rates, according to a study released last month by Johns Hopkins University and the Get Schooled Foundation. Earlier research found that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students misses that much school.

“So often we think of absenteeism as a matter of older students skipping school, but it starts long before that,” said Hedy Chang, director of the Attendance Works initiative and co-author of the seminal research on early chronic absence. “Younger children, especially those living in poverty, are often dealing with illnesses, unreliable transportation and frequent moves, all of which affect school attendance. These are exactly the kind of issues that city agencies and community nonprofits can work on with schools and parents to turn around poor attendance.”

In New York City, one in five students—more than 200,000 young people—missed 20 days or more of school last year. Recognizing the problem, Mayor Bloomberg created the Chronic Absenteeism and Truancy Task Force in 2010 and launched a pilot program that fall. The program, now in 50 schools, relies on several strategies:

  • Data sharing among key stakeholders and strategic use of “early warning” data to identify and prevent chronic absence and school failure
  • Personalizing school through the creation of the largest in-school mentoring program in the nation—targeting more than 4,000 at-risk students, by “repurposing” existing resources and partnerships
  • Cultivation of a culture of attendance and its importance through public messaging, awareness-building activities and attendance incentives
  • Rigorous infrastructure and data-driven accountability aimed at creating scalable models for future implementation both in NYC and nationwide
  • Creating systemic models to better connect existing local resources and community stakeholders with schools. These include an asthma initiative that brings the city’s Health Department to bear on the No. 1 cause of illness-related absences.

“Kids who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out of school or become involved in juvenile crime – outcomes we will not accept,” said Mayor Bloomberg. "In New York, we've made great gains in reducing chronic absenteeism, and know there is more work to do here and across the country. The resolution from the US Conference of Mayors makes this issue the priority it needs to be so that our students are in school every day." Bloomberg is also a sponsor of the resolution.

The resolution urges cities to pursue similar strategies in tackling chronic absence in their communities. And it endorses the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s approach to including attendance in its focus on ensuring more low-income children master reading by the end of third grade.

Other sponsors include: Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, Pembroke Pines (FL) Mayor Frank Ortis, West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon and Portland (OR) Mayor Sam Adams.

Attendance Works, an America’s Promise partner, is a national and state-level initiative that promotes better policy and practice for school attendance. It aims to reduce chronic absence starting as soon as children enter school.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaborative effort by dozens of foundations, nonprofit partners, states and communities across the nation to close the gap in reading achievement that separates many low-income students from their peers.