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Janresseger: What to Do About the Surge in Student Absenteeism?

Everyone agrees that COVID somehow changed norms about regular attendance at school.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Laura Bischoff reports that chronic absenteeism has become an extremely serious problem in Ohio’s public schools in the years since COVID’s disruption: “Chronic absenteeism rates in Ohio schools—children who miss at least 10% of the school year—is about 30%, but the number varies when you dig into who those students are and where they live…. About 24% of white children were chronically absent during the 2021-2022 academic year, but that number doubled for Black children. Urban school districts have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, and in some cases they were triple or quadruple their suburban counterparts. About 44% of economically disadvantaged students were chronically absent. And students with learning disabilities were at 40%.”  Two members of the Ohio House of Representatives have even proposed a bill to experiment with cash incentives to improve school attendance.

Public schooling has for generations been among our society’s primary social institutions. In their 1992 book, The Good Society, Robert Bellah and a team of sociologists and ethicists define what primary  institutions mean for a society: “We form institutions and they form us every time we engage in a conversation that matters, and certainly every time we act as parent or child, student or teacher, citizen or official, in each case calling on models and metaphors for the rightness and wrongness of action. Institutions are not only constraining but also enabling. They are the substantial forms through which we understand our own identity and the identity of others as we seek cooperatively to achieve a decent society.” (The Good Society, p. 12)

Public school closures and the retreat to remote learning during COVID disrupted the expectations and habits that public school institutions have established over many generations—including the obligation of families to ensure their children’s regular attendance. The mother Alec MacGillis interviews for a report in the January 15 issue of The New Yorker magazine describes how COVID somehow weakened her sense that school attendance must be her top priority when other pressures intervene. MacGillis writes: “Nationwide, the rate of chronic absenteeism—defined as missing at least ten percent of school days, or eighteen in a year—nearly doubled between 2018-19 and 2021-22, to twenty-eight percent of students….”

MacGillis profiles one private contractor which several large school districts have hired to reduce chronic absenteeism.  Concentric Educational Solutions, a Maryland-based company, provides “professional student advocates,” who, after a two week training course, are assigned personally to visit the homes of the students their school districts deem chronically absent, talk with the parent or guardian, listen to the family’s problems and needs, and encourage them to ensure their children attend school regularly. Concentric Solutions has contracts with the Baltimore, Maryland and Detroit, Michigan public schools along with smaller urban districts surrounding Detroit, and a growing number of other school districts that have been using remaining COVID recovery funds to pay the company. Concentric Solutions has grown rapidly now that—post-COVID—schools have returned to a regular, in-person schedule.

Is a Private Contractor the Best Way to Get Kids Back to School?

Rampant poor management and financial abuse of the public trust have been extensively documented in the privatized charter school sector. Private contractors like Concentric Educational Solutions pose the same risks.  Much as I agree with MacGillis that Concentric’s professional student advocates are more likely to get kids back to school by encouraging parents than the truant officers who report parents of chronically absent children to the county prosecutor, I find myself troubled by his assumption that Concentric Solutions and similar private contractors might be the key to addressing today’s complex rise in rampant school absenteeism. Although the specific professional student advocate MacGillis interviews, Shepria Johnson, describes her determination to fulfill the company’s mission, the school districts contracting with Concentric lack sufficient public oversight over the contractor they have hired. MacGillis reports that a Johns Hopkins University evaluation of the effectiveness of Concentric Educational Solutions’ home visits was inconclusive because of the number of home visits where no parent or guardian was at home and because of the lack of data from previous years that could be used for comparison.

It is also clear that the problems of the parent MacGillis describes are for more complex than mere negligence.  The single mother of eight children has patched together several jobs to make ends meet.  Her employment schedule is inflexible; like many workers, she cannot control her work hours.

It is a serious concern that MacGillis is sketchy in reporting any kind of structural connection between Concentric’s professional student advocates to the particular schools the students on their assigned visiting lists are supposed to be attending: “The conversation (with the parent) was only the first half of the job; next was relaying what information she had learned to school officials or to Concentric employees stationed at schools.” Who are the Concentric employees stationed at particular schools? Are Concentric Student Advocates taking any steps to strengthen the relationship between the child’s teacher and the parent? Are professional student advocates collaborating with the school social workers in the schools where children are missing school? In an anonymous big city like Detroit or Baltimore, where chronically absent students are lost to the system, are Concentric’s student advocates working to reconnect the students and their families by strengthening families’ relationships with key people at each child’s specific public school, the public institution with the human capacity to address that child’s needs?

The  specific examples of Concentric Solutions actively connecting with school staff were to notify the school if the parent lacked the money to buy winter clothes or was forced to take on a second job to buy Christmas gifts. MacGillis reports that Concentric itself found a winter jacket and helped get the children’s names added to a list to receive Christmas gift donations. But what about helping parents connect with public school transportation or available financial assistance with before-school and after-school childcare programs when parents on impossible work schedules are having trouble ensuring that their children by themselves or under the care of an older sibling are capable of or responsible enough for getting themselves to school?

MacGillis does not cover the scale and depth of the problem of student absence in our nation’s biggest and most impoverished urban areas, nor does he explore the serious challenges these school districts face. It is not surprising that chronic absenteeism has grown alarmingly in impoverished urban areas.  In a small town where the school principal and the teachers shop in the same grocery store as the parents, families are not so likely to slip through the cracks. In smaller and more stable communities where families move less frequently, a child’s absence from school will be immediately noticed by teachers and counselors who are likely quickly to intervene.  But some large school districts are making concerted efforts to better connect families with the schools their children attend.  In New York City, for example, where family homelessness affects 10 percent of the students each year, the school district has assigned school liaisons to each homeless shelter to help students stay connected to their previous school when their families move into or change shelters.  The liaisons also help students find the support they need at their schools.

Neither do we learn from MacGillis’s article about school district fiscal challenges that have caused the alarming  shortage of school psychologists, guidance counselors and school social workers.  Last August, the Washington Post reported: “(T)he need is immediate and widespread, and services often are not. It would take 77,000 more school counselors, 63,000 more school psychologists and probably tens of thousands of school social workers to reach levels recommended by professional groups before the pandemic hit, those organizations say. Typically, the jobs require a master’s  degree, meaning six or seven years of higher education. The pipeline does not flow rapidly.” MacGillis does not consider whether the expenditure of funds to hire Concentric Educational Solutions might be better invested in hiring more school social workers to reduce the alarming size of case loads.

The most obvious missing piece in MacGillis’s report is any reference to the role of full service Community Schools to make the public school the essential institution not only for children, but also for parents and families. Full service, wraparound Community Schools strengthen the connection of parents to the expectations and values represented by the institution of universal public schooling.

Full service Community Schools bring social service and medical services along with early care and after school care right into the school. A Community School director can patch together—for programming located in the school building—federal funding from Medicaid, HeadStart, and 21st Century Learning Centers After School Programs. Community Schools also provide summer services for children, and some also house English language classes and job training classes for parents. Community School staff and school social workers also help parents access needed social service programs and even legal services in the broader community. Parents can find the services their children need, including required immunizations, vision testing, and dental care and an after-school program—right at school.

Education journalist, Jeff Bryant recently reported on a school social worker’s effort to turn her Hillsborough County, Florida school into a full service Community School: “Tracee Phillips knew, well before the COVID pandemic, that… students were struggling with mental health issues. As the school’s former social worker—she became the district coordinator for social work services in 2023—she routinely dealt with students experiencing anxiety and depression, she said. The sources for these two issues were multiple, including food insecurity, parents working multiple jobs and not being at home, threats of becoming unhoused, parent unemployment, family member incarceration, and divorce, according to Phillips.  But when students came back to in-person learning, it was clear that the impact of the pandemic had exaggerated their mental health trauma. As concerns about student mental health heightened, Phillips credits Brandon principal Jeremy Klein for introducing the idea of the community schools approach into the conversation.”


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...