On October 27, members of the Ohio Attendance Taskforce, which include school and business leaders as well as representatives from the juvenile court system, unveiled a series of recommendations aimed at improving school attendance. Their suggestions couldn’t have come at a better time, as districts and schools across the state continue to struggle with high rates of chronic absenteeism. As numerous reports have documented, absenteeism shot up during the pandemic, has yet to come back down to pre-pandemic levels, and is making academic recovery more difficult.
The taskforce’s recommendations are part of a detailed report that’s worth a read, as it includes a look at how some systems and schools—such as the state’s largest district, Columbus City Schools, and the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA), a charter school in Dayton—are seeing promising results from attendance-boosting efforts. The highlight of the report, though, is its five in-depth recommendations. Let's take a look at each.
1. Working together, build awareness and galvanize statewide support for the role attendance plays in student success in academics, careers, and life.
The report emphasizes that a wide variety of stakeholders—districts and schools, students and families, community members, business leaders, faith communities, and state leaders—have an important role to play in supporting student attendance. It’s absolutely crucial for these groups to work together to address absenteeism. One potential way to do this is by expanding the Stay in the Game! Attendance Network into a comprehensive statewide messaging campaign that every district could join (right now, around thirty-five of the state’s 611 districts participate). The campaign could highlight trends and data, identify best practices, and share the stories of schools that are successfully improving student attendance.
Building local partnerships is also crucial, and the report offers several ideas. For example, healthcare professionals like pediatricians and dentists could make sure to offer appointments before and after school hours so that students don't have to miss class. Local businesses could post signage and informational materials that support school attendance efforts. And neighborhood restaurants could recognize local students with high attendance marks.
2. Foster engagement, build trust and belonging, and address local challenges with students, families, and educators.
Implementing “robust, authentic, and frequent” student and family engagement experiences is critical. Parents and families can’t address problems if they’re not aware of them, and students are more likely to attend school if they feel a sense of trust and belonging.
Schools should view families as “respected allies” when it comes to student attendance. Getting off on the right foot is crucial, so the report recommends beginning each school year by sending home positive messages via text, notes, or emails. Throughout the year, schools should make a concerted effort to reach all families and communicate proactively and regularly. Administrators could establish focus groups to gather information and ideas from families or create roles for parents on district and school leadership teams. Offering families the chance to engage with surveys or other feedback-gathering mechanisms at student performances, school exhibits, or sporting events would make engagement a lot more convenient, too.
Students, meanwhile, can be a big help when it comes to crafting innovative solutions that will appeal to their peers. As such, teachers and administrators should offer plenty of opportunities for students to provide feedback. Schools could create student taskforces that allow them to brainstorm ideas and present solutions on various issues—like absenteeism—to building administration. And districts could include a student as an ex-officio member of the school board who can offer an important perspective that might otherwise be absent.
3. Cultivate engaging and relevant learning environments at all Ohio schools so students want to attend.
“Getting teaching and learning right,” the report notes, “is a strong motivator for student engagement and attendance.” In other words, schools need “engaging and relevant” learning environments that make students want to show up. They can do so in a variety of ways: incorporating hands-on activities and interactive technologies into lessons; connecting academic content to real job opportunities and careers, as well as to real world problems; embedding enrichment activities and clubs into the school day; and ensuring that students have the academic supports they need—things like tutoring, counseling, and mentorship programs—to succeed. It’s also important for districts and schools to offer teachers professional development in classroom engagement and management techniques so they have the knowledge and skills they need to enhance classroom climates.
4. Adjust systems and resources to support schools and districts in their attendance work.
When it comes to boosting student attendance, schools can’t do it all on their own. The Department of Education and Workforce can offer support by integrating attendance across multiple state-led areas, including the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support framework, school improvement efforts, and health and mental health supports. The department should also identify and disseminate best practices. Creating an Attendance Data Guide and enhancing the data and access tools available to districts and schools could help.
District leaders also play a crucial role in supporting schools. One of the best ways to do so is to track and assess the effectiveness of attendance interventions so that schools can focus on what works. District leaders should also prioritize connecting with regional educational service centers and state support teams to offer staff training and support—especially certified Regional Data Leads, who can offer educators support in data analysis and data-driven decision-making. Meanwhile, in the interest of transparency, districts could create a school or district-level data dashboard that provides the public with real time information about student absences and opportunities for early intervention.
5. Work with policymakers to inform comprehensive policy changes that support student attendance.
In 2016, lawmakers overhauled the state’s attendance policies via House Bill 410. With several years of implementation now on the books, the taskforce wisely asked administrators to share what is and isn’t working. They praised the law for requiring schools to examine attendance data and for providing a standardized process and framework to identify the root causes of student absenteeism. But they also critiqued the law’s focus on compliance (rather than prevention and intervention) and noted that, by prescribing how schools must communicate with families, districts have been prevented from using more effective methods—like, for example, text messaging.
In response to this feedback, the report recommends that lawmakers refine Ohio’s attendance-related policies. The taskforce doesn’t call on the state to do away with HB 410 entirely, which means consequence-related provisions like absence intervention teams and filing truancy complaints with juvenile court would remain intact. But it does call on leaders to shift “allocation and action” away from compliance and toward prevention and early intervention. It also recommends adding flexibility regarding how schools can communicate with families. However, it’s important to note that not all adjustments are good adjustments. For example, a recent legislative effort that would have made it easier for students to miss school would move Ohio in the wrong direction. Going forward, lawmakers should be thoughtful as they consider how to adjust state attendance laws.
Nationwide, chronic absenteeism has become a crisis. Ohio is no exception, and it’s important for state and local leaders to not only acknowledge the crisis, but to act. The recommendations released by the Ohio Attendance Taskforce provide a great place to start.