California: Cultivate a School-wide Culture of Attendance

All schools should have a welcoming and engaging environment that includes a strong emphasis on the importance of going to class every day. Principals can model this approach and engage staff in consistently sending the message that attendance matters.

Principals and school staff are well positioned to help families understand what their children are learning in school and what they miss when they are absent. Parents and students may not realize that even excused absences, if they accumulate, can be a problem and lead to falling behind in the classroom. Few families realize that absenteeism is a problem as early as kindergarten and preschool. The latest research suggests that the most effective communication goes beyond talking about the benefits of attendance to making parents aware of the adverse impact of absences on learning and emphasizing that students should miss school only when an absence is unavoidable.

Start outreach before the school year begins

Principals can use back-to-school letters, social media, phone calls or visits from teachers, robo-calls (ideally personalized by classroom) and even text messaging to communicate about how important attendance is for student achievement and to ensure that families know when the first day of school is. While parents are the primary target for elementary outreach, students should be included in the messaging campaigns of middle and high schools.

Check whether your county or district has produced outreach materials tailored to your community. Here are a few examples from counties in California:

Leverage existing activities to communicate the importance of good attendance, and offer support to families

School assemblies, back-to-school nights, preschool or kindergarten orientation events, parent-teacher conferences and newsletters present important opportunities to engage students and their families and send the message that regular attendance is an expectation, and to build awareness that absences reduce a child’s opportunities to learn. Wherever possible, establish and maintain two-way communication, including collecting current contact information and encouraging families to ask for assistance if they face barriers such as transportation issues, job loss, unstable housing arrangements or health concerns.

Keep in mind that most families believe that attendance is important but don’t realize how easily a couple of absences a month can add up to academic risk. Talk positively about the importance of attendance while motivating families to keep track of absences. Mention that families will be contacted if school staff members notice too many absences. Make sure families know that even in pre-K and kindergarten, missing just two days a month can impact learning and make it difficult for children to develop a habit of regular attendance that will help them succeed throughout their school career. Use these tools:

Teachers are an especially important resource for engaging in caring outreach, since they are in daily contact with students and can take advantage of regularly scheduled interactions, such as parent-teacher conferences, to talk one-on-one with families. As the first line of intervention and prevention, teachers can make attendance a normal topic in all interactions with parents. Teachers can also bring in additional school staff if a deeper intervention is needed.

Nurture a school-wide system of attendance incentives

School communities can send a clear message that going to school every day is a priority by providing regular recognition and rewards to students and families who have good and improved attendance. Tardiness can be addressed by ensuring that awards recognize on-time attendance.

Keep in mind the goal is not to focus on perfect attendance for just a quarter or semester, since the children who struggle the most will soon be left out of such awards. Instead, schools can recognize most improved attendance, for example, as well as perfect attendance for each week, so that students have a chance to try again even if they had an absence the week prior.

In addition, schools should also recognize parents and families for their role in getting their children to school. Schools can acknowledge families by calling out their names or offering a flower at a school assembly to every family whose child had perfect attendance the past month.

A school-wide approach can also help improve the accuracy of attendance data since the students themselves are likely to help ensure that teachers are aware of who is and who isn’t in class! Attendance incentive programs should be designed to encourage teachers to convey the importance of attendance by taking roll in a positive manner that shows students that teachers notice and appreciate when students come to class.

A third of students say no one noticed when they missed school, and another third said teachers noticed only some of the time, according to a survey conducted by Get Schooled. Principals can combat this impression by greeting students and families at the door every day and by welcoming students back to school after they are absent.

Use Attendance Awareness Month to launch a year-long focus on reducing absence

September: Organizations and communities across the country use Attendance Awareness Month to ensure that the school year gets off to a strong start. In California, key policy makers such as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Attorney General and state legislators have all used September as an opportunity to issue proclamations and hold events calling attention to the importance of school attendance.

You, too, can leverage September as you set the school-wide culture and the norms for the entire school year. Consider using this online resource:

Winter Holidays: The winter holidays represent a challenge—and an opportunity—for educating parents about the importance of good attendance. As you know, absences often spike in the weeks before and after winter break, as families try to squeeze in a few more vacation days. This is particularly true for families visiting relatives in other countries. Use these resources:

End of the School Year: In many districts, attendance plummets in June after testing is finished and instruction winds down. Teachers can use this time to ward off summer learning loss and accelerate performance in the next grade.

Attendance Works California Cultivate a School-wide Culture of Attendance


You can have the best facilities, the best teachers and the best curriculum in the world, but none of that matters if students are not in school.

Tom Torlakson
Superintendent of Public Instruction

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