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Every Minute Matters: The National School Attendance Crisis

by Partnership Staff
4 minute read

Posted on the walls of several Partnership Schools and lived out in their daily routines is this root belief: Every minute matters. When it comes to school attendance, ample research demonstrates that to be true; every minute in school matters. And yet in the last few years, too many schools have sent the opposite message. They have communicated that school is inessential. The result? We are facing historic declines in student achievement and historic increases in chronic absenteeism, and a generation of children is at risk. 

The data is as stark as it is clear. Among low-income Kindergarteners, missing just two school days a month is a strong predictor that a student will perform in the lowest levels of reading and math even years later, in fifth grade. By sixth grade, students who miss ten percent or more of school—the equivalent of just two days per month—are far more likely to drop out of high school than those who attend school regularly. 

Alarmingly, the number of students who are “chronically absent”—i.e., the number who miss 10 percent of school each year—has doubled since 2020, from 8 million in 2019 to 16 million by the Spring of 2022. 

There are many factors that have contributed to this sharp rise in absenteeism, but one is the culture that we, as a nation, unintentionally created when we shuttered schools for far longer than was necessary–and for far longer than any other developed nation. Too many national, state, and district leaders put reopening bars and restaurants ahead of schools, and too many told parents “not to worry” if their children fell behind. A post widely shared on social media in the spring of 2020—even by schools—demonstrates this cavalier treatment of the harm that even then school closures were causing:

Across the Partnership Schools, we also experienced a decline in daily attendance, but because we reopened as soon as we were able in fall, 2020—and because we have prioritized rebuilding a culture of daily attendance—that decline is miniscule. Prior to Covid, our schools had daily attendance rates greater than 95 percent. Since Covid, our daily attendance rate has hovered around 91 percent—a number that, while obviously quite strong, we remain committed to improving.

“I watch what I do to see what I believe,” Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, once said—reminding us that to have integrity, our actions must match our words. Continuing to live out our belief that every minute in school matters is a daily call to action that our school leaders are meeting head-on, with a range of intentional strategies.

For example, when the team at St. Athanasius found that the school’s information system didn’t give them the quick, holistic view of attendance they sought each morning, they created their own tracker to speed up identification of students and classes with emerging attendance issues, so teachers and the administration can respond to them quickly. 

They’ve increased communication with all parents about attendance, emphasizing its importance and clarifying what constitutes a legitimate absence. “Please don’t come to school when you are sick,” Principal Jessica Aybar explains. “But if it’s raining, if your uniform pants are still in the dryer, if we’ve got a half-day of school on Friday—none of those are acceptable reasons to miss school, and we make that clear.” 

St. Athanasius Principal Jessica Aybar.

Jessica and other principals also have “courageous, honest, transparent conversations about the very real effect of being absent” with parents whose children are absent often. “I explain that it’s not just two days at home; that’s two math lessons, two English Language Arts lessons. And the truth is that if your child is missing many lessons each month, we can’t catch them up for all that. The teacher is never going to teach that whole lesson again. We are always here to support our students along the way, but the larger the gaps, the harder it is to fill.” She describes the setbacks of frequent absences layered on top of pandemic learning delays as “running on a treadmill and going nowhere.” 

She also works sympathetically with parents on the unglamorous parenting routines that guard the school’s belief that “learning is sacred work.” She says that she and other administrators “need to work with parents to find solutions–’yeah, I really do have to get them to bed earlier’, or pack lunches or lay out uniforms the night before. We’re not calling just to get on your case, but because we really care and want to see your child here,” she adds.

The school also makes the collective impact of individual attendance transparent to students. Every day that a whole class is present, it is a cause for celebration—perhaps a snack or additional free time that can mean a lot to students. “We make it clear to the kids that it is a very good thing when all of you are here.” 

Over the course of months, collective action broke the habit of consistent school attendance for millions of American students, including some of ours. Rebuilding that habit is essential—not just for the sake of the students we are so happy to see every day, but for our communities as a whole.