For more information about this type of strategy, see our School Districts page.
Baltimore was one of the first cities to begin considering chronic absence in its bid to improve attendance. In a way, it’s uniquely positioned with both a substantial absenteeism problem and easy access to the right data and research resources to draw on.
Maryland is one of the few states which requires schools and districts to report how many students are chronically absent each year. The state sets the standard for chronic absence at 20 days, slightly higher than the 10 percent mark. Baltimore is also home to a set of Johns Hopkins University researchers who have explored the role of chronic absence in high school dropout prevention.
In 2008, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore (OSI-Baltimore) commissioned the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (a partnership of Johns Hopkins, Morgan State University and Baltimore City Public Schools) to extend the data into the early grades. The results showed an alarming situation: one in six elementary students was missing at least 20 days of class, as were 34 percent of middle schoolers and 44 percent of high school students.
The numbers catalyzed the community to come together in a citywide attendance work group aimed at getting more children to school everyday. Led by the mayor’s office, superintendent’s staff and an OSI director, the work group brought together more than 100 representatives of city and state agencies, parents, students, universities, foundations, public interest groups, and nonprofits.
Their goals were to improve access to attendance data, develop positive and supportive preventions and early intervention strategies, address barriers to regular attendance such as dental problems and unreliable transportation, and initiate a campaign to make attendance a high priority city-wide.
OSI, a local and national foundation, also provided funding to the ACLU of Maryland and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard University Law School to research best practices and to coordinate the work group, which is now known as the Baltimore Student Attendance Campaign. Attendance data shows that chronic absence rates among Baltimore’s middle grades students have been cut in half, while elementary and high school figures remain flat.
Key to the strategy is not focusing on a single measure of attendance. Instead Baltimore has developed a continuum:
Efforts to improve attendance came in tandem with steps to reform the school district’s strict discipline code, which resulted in more than 100,000 missed days of school in the 2006-7 school year. A steep reduction in suspensions for minor disciplinary infractions, along with efforts to replace struggling middle schools with kindergarten-to-eighth grade schools and sixth-to-12th grade campuses, helped cut middle school absences in half.
Across the school district, teachers, students, parents and community members continue to build a culture of attendance. Students made videos and posters to highlight the importance of attendance. Experience Corps members and church group volunteers contact chronically absent students and their families to find and help address barriers to attendance. The Social Services and Juvenile Justice departments now consider attendance a “must respond to” indicator.
The school district launches an information blitz for parents and students at the beginning of each school year, with a particularly focus on the transition years: kindergarten, sixth and ninth. Every school is equipped to track attendance for the campus and for individual students on data dashboards.
The efforts focus on both excused and unexcused absences. Realizing that many absences are related to health concerns, Baltimore officials are exploring how to share attendance data with school nurses and ensure that schools conduct health screens using policies based on nationial standards . Frequent excused absences would become an an indicator to check in with the family and student about health care needs.
Through strategic grants and investments, the attendance initiative is steadily addressing absenteeism:
- The Family League of Baltimore City, which administers the city’s investment in afterschool programs, requires the programs to work to target chronically absent students, to take attendance and to set attendance goals for their student population.
- OSI-Baltimore’s grants target foster children and homeless children, two populations with high absentee rates.
- The city’s transit agency is partnering with the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and other advocacy organizations through the Rate Your Ride texting campaign to track real time data about students experience using public transportation and then address those issues.
Individually, Baltimore principals are working to build the type of school culture that encourages children to attend school regularly. One of these schools – Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School – offers an inspiring model of success. Despite the fact that 91 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch and classes often have as many as 40 students, Franklin boasts one of the highest attendance rates in Baltimore.
- Keys to a Great School Year: a checklist to help parents get their children to school regularly, developed by the Baltimore Public Schools and Baltimore Student Attendance Campaign
- Attendance Best Practices, Baltimore Public Schools
- Climate Walk (observations draft) , Baltimore Public Schools
- For more information, contact Jane Sundius at Open Society Institute-Baltimore or Sue Fothergill at Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign.