Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

October 14th, 2014

Chronic Absenteeism as a Public Health Issue

We know that health issues–whether asthma, dental problems or depression–can contribute to school absenteeism. A new report issued today in Oregon discusses how the converse is true: Absenteeism contributes to lower educational success, which predicts a life time of bad health.

The Connection Between Missing School and Health by Upstream Public Health looks “upstream” at factors in communities, at home, and at schools that lead to chronic absenteeism.

The report reviews data and research on student absences – finding that unexpected factors such as unstable housing, fear of bullying, and punitive school discipline policies as well as health conditions such as hunger, dental pain, respiratory illness, and depression contribute to absenteeism.

Additionally, it explores how adults with less education are more likely to smoke, be overweight, have diabetes, and die prematurely of certain chronic conditions.

The report goes beyond the problem to identifying solutions. It gives case study examples of communities working to address chronic absenteeism locally and beyond Oregon. It stresses using chronic absence data as one factor in allocating and coordinating social service delivery to schools.

“We need that village – when educators work with social services and health professionals they can get the resources that our most vulnerable kids need to be healthy and engaged in school.” suggests Dr. Tia Henderson, Research Manager at Upstream Public Health and lead author of the report.

The recommendations include:

1. Ensure chronic absence data is publicly reported and regularly available to build
awareness and support among parents, students, school administrators, educators,
and community leaders
2. Use chronic absence numbers as one factor in allocating and coordinating health and
social service resource delivery
3. Develop community-wide, cross-sector, and interagency collaboration related to
schools to prevent and address chronic absence
4. Revisit policies to support student attendance – Institutional policies, supports, and systems
can help develop a culture around regular student attendance
5. Identify challenges facing children of color and develop community-driven strategies
to provide social supports
6. Implement pilot strategies and evaluate what works best for different communities

These make sense to us. We know that improving attendance is not just up to schools.  Across the country, we see the most gains occurring when educators and community partners join forces to examine absence data in real time in order to leverage shared resources to take action.

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October 9th, 2014

Afterschool program & activity boost school attendance, cogntive skills

This guest post by Erik Peterson of the Afterschool Alliance was originally posted on the Afternoon Snack Blog.

A recent study conducted by researchers out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that elementary school students who exercised for about an hour a day in an afterschool program had better brain function and were more focused than students who did not engage in much physical activity.

Researchers conducting the nine-month study of 7- to 9-year-olds randomly assigned 221 students to either a structured afterschool program with a strong physical activity component, or assigned them to a wait list for the program. Children in both groups were tested before and after the study period on a series of cognitive and executive control tasks such as memory, multitasking, and ability to resist distractions while focusing on a specific task, in addition to physical fitness assessments.

Students who participated in the afterschool program attended for two hours per day, with at least 60 minutes spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activities like tag, soccer or dribbling a basketball through an obstacle course. Researchers required students in the study to wear heart-rate monitors and pedometers, and provided healthful snacks and rest breaks.

The study found significant differences between the students in the afterschool program and those on the wait list. Students in the intervention group improved two-fold when tested on accuracy and cognitive tasks compared to the students that did not participate in the afterschool program. Researchers found widespread changes in brain function, meaning greater amounts of executive control in the students that engaged in physical activity while participating in the afterschool program. Students in the program also improved both their overall fitness and their school attendance rates.

The study adds to the growing body of research on the positive academic and other outcomes for students who regularly participate in afterschool programs

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October 6th, 2014

Attendance and Community Partners: A Q&A

We were honored to be a guest on Communities in Schools new “Borrowed Brains” feature on its blog. CIS is a terrific organization that brings support and services to many of our most vulnerable students who are struggling with significant challenges to attendance and achievement. Here’s what we talked about:

Q: Let’s start with the big question: Is there any sign that we’re making progress in fighting chronic absenteeism?

A: Absolutely! While the concept of advancing student achievement by reducing chronic absence is still new, we are already starting to see results in schools, communities and districts that have taken a comprehensive, data driven approach to partnering with families to nurture a regular habit of attendance and addressing common barriers to getting to school.

The What Works section of our website shares success stories nationwide, from Los Angeles, CA, to New Britain, CT. In New York, for instance, an evaluation by Johns Hopkins University of its Success Mentors program found that, compared to their peers, students served by the program not only had nine fewer days of absences, but also were more likely to still be in school three years later and maintain a C average.

And, we know there are more examples that we haven’t yet had the resources or the time to document. For example, I recently read that Hawaii has begun to achieve statewide reductions after including chronic absence as an accountability metric for school improvement and using its longitudinal student database to offer schools easy access to real time data on which students are at risk. We are looking forward to finding out more about on-the-ground practices that are making a difference.

Q: You’ve said the causes of chronic absenteeism can be grouped into three categories: Myths (common misperceptions about attendance that inhibit families from ensuring students are in school every day starting in kindergarten or earlier); Aversion (when children are too afraid or discouraged to attend); and Barriers (transportation, poor health, etc.). Would you hazard a guess as to what percentage of chronic absences fall into each category?

Rather than hazard a guess, I challenge every school community to use data and insights from students and families to determine the extent to which Aversion and Barriers are preventing students from getting to school. All schools should make sure that students are not being turned off from school because of bullying, inappropriately harsh school discipline practices or the lack of engaging, effective teaching and instruction. Clearly, in low-income communities, poverty related challenges are much more likely to exist whether those are chronic illness related to lack of access to medical care or unhealthy environmental conditions, homelessness, unreliable transportation or community violence.

Myths may be harder to quantify, but we know they affect every community. While every family has hopes and dreams for their children to have a successful future, many do not realize that, starting in kindergarten or even preschool, just missing a couple days per month can result in so much lost instructional time that students fall behind. This is why reducing chronic absence is one of those rare opportunities where better messaging and communication can initially yield measurable results.

Finding out what keeps students from attending school every day is essential because it ensures schools and communities put in place solutions that will make a real difference. What keeps a particular student or group of students from getting to school or preschool can and will vary significantly by student, school and community. But, keeping these three categories in mind can help with identifying the biggest challenges for the largest numbers of students so appropriate programmatic interventions can be put in place.

The size and scale of the problem can also offer clues about the nature of the attendance challenges. Students and families with the most severe levels of absence often face multiple barriers to getting to class. If only a small number of students are chronically absent, then issues are more likely to be individual in nature. When chronic absence affects large numbers of students in a particular school or neighborhood, it is often an indication of more systemic challenges.

Q: The “Barriers” category strikes me as the one that teachers and principals are least equipped to deal with. Would you agree? And if it’s true, what’s the best solution?

A: Yes, it is true that many barriers are beyond the capacity of schools alone to address. This is why school-community partnerships are essential. Community partners can help the school unpack what are the likely barriers affecting the attendance for significant numbers of students as well as develop appropriate solutions. Data on chronic absence can help inform districts and their schools about where forging partnerships with community agencies are needed most.

Community agencies may have access to data on community health, safety, transportation, or other challenges that often correspond to high levels of chronic absence. Community agencies can also help draw upon the insights of families and students. If they offer case management services, they may be able to add questions about school attendance into their protocol. And, they can help schools conduct surveys and focus groups. In addition to offering expertise from other disciplines like social work, health or community organizing, these agencies can also offer perspective based upon their knowledge of the languages and the cultures of the families who make up the populations with the highest levels of chronic absence.

Community agencies and schools can then use data and their partnership to determine where existing services can be reallocated to address current barriers or work together to obtain new or additional resources to address unmet gaps.

Q: Why don’t more community partnerships exist to reduce chronic absence?

A: A significant challenge is the lack of awareness among schools and communities about the extent to which chronic absence is a problem. Why does chronic absence go undetected even though most teachers take roll every day? First, most schools and districts have only been monitoring average daily attendance (how many students show up each day) and truancy (unexcused absences) rather than chronic absence (missing so much school for any reason that students are academically at risk). They do not realize that both average daily attendance and truancy can mask high levels of chronic absence. Second, chronic absence can be hard to notice if communities just rely upon teacher observation. Especially with increasingly large classes, teachers can easily overlook a child who is chronically absent, especially if absences are sporadic, occurring once every few weeks rather than all in a row.

Fortunately,  most districts can now take advantage of their electronic data systems to track and monitor attendance though often some extra steps are needed to ensure their systems calculate chronic absence rates and generate the list of the students who are at risk due to missing too much school. Attendance Works offers free tools to help districts identify their chronically absent students and pinpoint which schools, grades, student populations are most affected.

Community agencies should keep in mind, however, that even if districts have calculated their chronic absence rates, they might be reluctant to share. Sometimes districts are concerned about protecting confidentiality. They may not realize that sharing aggregate data on overall levels of chronic absence by grade, school, or student sub-population is not a violation of either FERPA or HIPPA as long as the number of students included is large enough to avoid attributing the data to an individual student. Districts may also be concerned about releasing the data because they are fearful that it will be used to cast blame rather than create the conditions for community stakeholders to partner effectively with schools to address barriers to attendance. These challenges, however, can be addressed when schools and community agencies sit down together to determine how they can best work together to reduce chronic absence.

Q: If you had all of our 2,000+ Site Coordinators sitting in front of you, what is the one thing you would want them to know about chronic absenteeism?

A: When I reflect upon everything I know about reducing chronic absence, I think the two most essential ingredients for improving attendance are data and caring relationships.  This understanding, drawn from what we see working across the country, is reflected in our newest toolkit, The Power of Positive Connections. It shares how schools and community partners can use absenteeism records from past years and from the first month of school to connect the most at-risk students to personal relationships and positive supports that motivate them to show up to class every day. It is a step-by-step guide to what we know works—reducing chronic absence through PEOPLE (Priority Early Outreach through Positive Linkages and Engagement).

I hope all site coordinators will leverage this resource. I am thrilled by the growing partnership with Community Schools and the potential it offers for us to combine our respective assets, resources and knowledge to ensure children throughout the United States are in school so they can benefit from our country’s important and growing investments in teaching and instruction.

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