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Why school attendance matters & what you can do to help

The Grad Nation Campaign goal is to reach a 90 percent national high school graduation rate by the year 2020. But students can’t graduate if they aren’t attending school in the first place. In fact, chronic absenteeism – when a student misses at least 10 percent of the school year, just two to three days per month – is a proven early warning indicator of academic failure and, eventually, high school dropout.[i] Which is why America’s Promise Alliance has co-launched a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the importance daily attendance plays in helping us become a “Grad Nation.”

Research shows that an alarmingly high number of students, approximately 5 to 7.5 million,[ii] are missing nearly a month of school every year. There are many underlying issues involved in why students miss school, including health, bullying/school climate, transportation, and home life issues. Children living in poverty are more likely than their more affluent peers to be chronically absent,[iii] and are also more likely to suffer the severest consequences for missing too much school, since their families often lack the resources to make up for lost time.

Fortunately, chronic absenteeism is an issue that everyone can and should help solve. This includes parents, teachers and other school personnel, afterschool program staff, coaches, mentors and tutors, and more. The first step in solving the challenge is awareness – many parents and even teachers do not fully realize the negative, long-term impact missing school can have on a child. Common myths include:

  • “Only unexcused absences are problematic.” All types of absences – excused, unexcused and suspensions – mean time away from learning. And when schools only track unexcused absences (truancy), they often miss an opportunity to intervene before absenteeism becomes a major problem.
  • “Absences are only a problem when they’re consecutive.” Studies show that even just two to three nonconsecutive absences per month can lead to academic failure if they continue throughout the year.[iv]
  • “Attendance only matters in high school.” Research shows that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students is chronically absent, and that too many absences in these early grades can result in children unable to read proficiently by third grade,[v] another early warning indicator of academic trouble down the road.
  • “Our school has a 93 percent average daily attendance (ADA) rate. So we’re doing fine.” Tracking ADA provides an important, but not a full, picture of what’s happening at a school. What ADA does not reveal is whether the absences are due to many different students missing just a couple days each, or caused by a small but significant number of students, perhaps even 20-30 percent of student population. Only tracking individual students’ absences can tell the whole story and provide schools with the information they need to intervene appropriately.

The next step after awareness is action. Here are a few things different groups can do:

  • Schools: First and foremost, recognize and celebrate good and improved attendance. Create a strong school culture around daily attendance. Additionally, track individual student absenteeism data, and use that data to identify which kids need interventions. As noted, there are many reasons kids miss school, so schools should offer interventions that match the student’s particular need. For example, offer free and reduced-price breakfast to kids in need; recent studies show that access to breakfast in the classroom helps increase attendance rates.[vi]
  • Afterschool programs and community partners: Use afterschool programs as a “hook” to entice students to come to school daily. Afterschool programs and other community organizations can also often connect students with resources that meet basic needs, like healthcare and transportation, which may be acting as barriers to consistent attendance.
  • Caring adults: Mentors, tutors, coaches and other adults can and should send a consistent message of encouragement to the kids they work closely with. Trusting relationships can also help students open up about why they are missing school, which helps adults know how they can best help them.
  • Parents: Build a habit (and an expectation) of good attendance as early as possible in your child’s life, and model good attendance yourself. Avoid scheduling vacations that would force your children to miss school. Keep an eye on your children’s absences – both the frequency and reasons. Maybe your child is being bullied, or falling behind in math class, and doesn’t want to tell you about it. While some absences are unavoidable, and no child should attend school while sick, consider if there are things that you can do to reduce the number of days your child misses.
  • Students: Deliver some “positive peer pressure” to your friends to let them know you care, and that you miss them when they don’t come to school. Offer to help in whatever ways you can. Swing by a friend’s house or send them a text before school, or encourage them to sign up for a Get Schooled Celebrity Wake-Up Call.

Want to learn more? Visit http://www.attendanceworks.org/attendancemonth/ to download research, statistics, policy briefs, messaging templates, toolkits and more.


[i] Baltimore Education Research Consortium. “Destination Graduation: Sixth Grade Early Warning Indicators for Baltimore City Schools, their Prevalence and Impact.” February 011. Available at: http://baltimore-berc.org/pdfs/SixthGradeEWIFullReport.pdf.

[ii] Balfanz, R., & Byrnes, V. “The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools.” May 2012. Available at http://new.every1graduates.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FINALChronicAbsenteeismReport_May16.pdf.

[iii] National Center for Children in Poverty. “A National Portrait of Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades.” October 2007. Available at http://www.nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_771.pdf.

[iv] Nauer, K. et al, “Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families.” October 2008. Available at http://www.newschool.edu/milano/nycaffairs/documents/StrengtheningSchoolsReport.pdf.

[v] Applied Survey Research & Attendance Works. “Attendance in Early Elementary Grades.” July 2011. Available at http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/ASR-Mini-Report-Attendance-Readiness-and-Third-Grade-Outcomes-7-8-11.pdf.

[vi] Deloitte & Share Our Strength. “Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis.” 2013. Available at http://www.nokidhungry.org/pdfs/school-breakfast-white-paper.pdf