Guest Blog post: By Sarah Peterson and Sarah Jonas with the Office of Community Schools at the NYC Department of Education
“We all belong in school!” – Genesis, a student at Urban Scholars Community School in New York City
Students like Genesis know that good things happen when they come to school. We also know that many students face barriers to attending school. In New York City (NYC) alone, over 85,000 students miss school every day for hundreds of different reasons. In fact, roughly one in four students is chronically absent—meaning they miss a month or more of school each year. The research is clear: students are academically at risk if they are chronically absent.
Helping students and families break down barriers to attending school is key to helping every student attend school every day. But removing attendance barriers requires more than just a one-off program in a school; it requires a whole school and whole child approach.
Reducing Chronic Absenteeism: Whole Child Approach
In 2013, then-City Council Member Bill de Blasio responded to NYC’s persistently high rate of chronic absenteeism, saying, “If we can’t do better on absenteeism, then none of our other educational outcomes make sense.” Over the course of 2014, Mayor de Blasio launched the Community Schools Initiative, a strategy designed to transform schools and meet the needs of the whole child, stating: “We believe in investing in the whole child. Community Schools respond to families’ needs in innovative ways so that students become more likely to attend class and are better able to focus and succeed.”
NYC Community Schools partner with local community-based organizations (CBOs) to organize resources in schools and share leadership among stakeholders so that academics, health and wellness, youth-development and family engagement are integrated into the fabric of each school. A focus on reducing chronic absenteeism is a priority for every NYC community school. Today, over 260 NYC Community Schools serve more than 135,000 students.
NYC Community Schools Work
NYC’s investment in the Community Schools Initiative has paid off. A new three-year impact study by the RAND Corporation entitled “Illustrating the Promise of Community Schools” shows that NYC Community Schools in comparison to demographically similar non-community schools are having a statistically significant impact on a range of outcomes that include chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, math scores, and disciplinary incidents. Specifically:
- Students miss fewer days of school. Chronic absenteeism was 7.3 percentage points lower in community elementary and middle schools, and 8.3 points lower in high schools. This was especially true for students in temporary housing (9.3% lower), and for Black students (10.1% lower).
- Students in Community Schools are more likely to graduate on time. In 2017–18, graduation rates in community high schools were 7.2 percentage points higher than other comparable high schools.
- Students feel safer and more supported. For every 100 students in elementary and middle Community Schools, there were 10 fewer disciplinary incidents per year.
As RAND’s principal investigator, William Johnston writes, “These findings provide new evidence of the promise of the Community Schools strategy for improving student attendance, as prior studies into similar comprehensive programs have only found marginal improvements in student attendance.”
We believe the NYC Community Schools were effective in reducing chronic absenteeism for several reasons:
- Relationships. Students are more likely to attend school if they feel emotionally and physically safe, connected to peers and adults, supported, and believe they can learn and achieve. Community Schools can create a trusting and supportive environment, where relationships with caring adults—such as Success Mentors, administrators, teachers, and staff from community-based organizations—motivate attendance even when it isn’t easy to get to class.
- Coordinated Community Resources. Principals and school leaders with access to community resources are best equipped to help students break down barriers to attending school. Every Community School has a coordinator or director who ensures the right support gets to the right student at the right time.
- Collaborative Leadership. Shared leadership and collaboration between the principal and community partners is key to turning the corner on chronic absenteeism. As one Community School principal told us, “With my Community School team, I didn’t feel I had to go it alone; I felt I was part of a team.” School leaders and partners are encouraged to meet regularly, collaboratively plan together and use real time data for continuous improvement to stay focused on results and help every student attend every day.
We believe New York City’s program is a model for the reduction of chronic absenteeism. Community Schools: A Guide for Getting Started, developed by the NYC Department of Education, offers additional ideas and resources that any state, district or school can use to implement the Community School strategy.