Connecticut exemplifies taking a strategic, data-driven, approach to reducing chronic absence which emphasizes prevention and strategic partnerships. In 2013, chronic absence affected 11.5 percent or over 60,000 students. This year, Connecticut’s state-wide chronic absence rate dropped from 10.7 to 10.4 percent. These results are not achieved by chance but reflect the deep commitment and on-going investment of the Connecticut Department of Education (CSDE).
Appointed in August 2019, Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona embodies the leadership and deep knowledge essential to ensuring continued progress. Attendance Works Executive Director, Hedy Chang, interviewed Commissioner Cardona earlier this month. The interview has been condensed.
AW: How did chronic absence emerge as a challenge in your work prior to becoming state commissioner? What did you learn from the experience?
Cardona: I started off as a 4th grade teacher in Meriden, Connecticut, and many of the students that I served were academically disadvantaged and came from backgrounds where they had greater needs, not just academically but in other areas as well. I learned early on that the role of teacher is not just academics but really providing social and emotional support, providing a safe place for students and giving students whatever was needed in order for them to be successful. I also learned early on that attendance is a symptom of other issues. So, [the process] was finding out whatever it was that was keeping the student from getting to school. [When I became principal] chronic absence was something I focused on because I saw that if we identified patterns [early on] we could address the root causes of poor attendance or truancy with a collaborative and proactive approach with families, rather than in a reactive, and what could be perceived as a punitive, way.
AW: As state commissioner, what is your vision for improving educational outcomes in Connecticut? How does addressing chronic absence fit with that vision?
Cardona: Ultimately our goal is to provide the best opportunity we can for all students to succeed in life. That means we have to consider all factors that contribute to student success or lack of success. Part of that process is ensuring we have a strong instructional core, which means we are providing quality teaching and leadership; that we are providing a high quality curriculum; and, that we are engaging students in a way that keeps them connected with their teachers and with their schools. And part of engagement is being in tune with what students are feeling and how connected they feel to the school. We know that if we don’t accomplish good student engagement, or the teaching practices are not high quality and don’t involve student centered learning, students are less likely to be engaged, and therefore, less likely to attend regularly. It is all connected.
AW: Your vision reflects the four conditions for learning described in Attendance Works brief, Using Chronic Absence Data to Improve Conditions for Learning, published in September 2019. How are you working to help districts and schools take steps to address issues in school when challenges outside the classroom affect conditions for learning and attendance in school?
Cardona: The notion, it takes a village to raise a child, is so true when it comes to addressing factors that lead to poor attendance. You can’t learn as well if you’re hungry or you have a lot of trauma that takes up your mental bandwidth. Effective schools are able to look at the school building as a hub for support for students when needed. In Meriden schools, for example, we created local health centers with emotional or behavior support workers to help mitigate some of that trauma or anxiety or whatever conditions students are coming to school with.
Effective schools partner with outside agencies to meet student needs. In some cases, it is as simple as partnering with a local Boys and Girls Club to provide after school programming that engages kids so they want to come to school, even if the lessons are hard. When partnerships are at the core of schooling, it enhances the experience of the child and the offerings of the school.
AW: What builds district level capacity to advance effective practices for reducing chronic absence?
Cardona: A major challenge in Connecticut is boldly addressing the income disparity among subgroups. Funding is an issue in many districts. To close achievement gaps, we need kids in school. Often, the best academic intervention is an attendance intervention. If a student is not accessing tier 1 support and high level and rigorous curriculum, then there is going to be a need for individual support or tutoring or reading intervention. We can sometimes prevent that by investing in no cost attendance strategies such as positive interactions with families and creating a culture where students feel comfortable sharing concerns about challenges that lead to poor attendance.
From a state level, the number one step is to identify district chronic absence rates. Look at districts that are struggling and falling far below the average. Have conversations with the district leaders and with the local boards of education. Tell them, ‘Here are the best practices that we see are the best for improving student attendance.’ We can also highlight the districts that are doing it well and what they are doing. We can create a culture of learning from each other, because we know that districts learn best from other districts and teachers learn best from other teachers.
We follow a strategy of support and accountability. It’s key to start with support, with having the data tools and information in place, and send the message that we are all in this together. We can then move into accountability, by telling educators that now that they have these tools at their disposal, the expectation is that they will use them because they produce a positive result. And keep the bar raised, because at the end of the day, it is an equity issue.
AW: What do you think helps to ensure chronic absence data and strategies are not siloed but are integrated into an overall school and district approach to improving student outcomes?
Cardona: The strategy for that is to reduce the silos. The most effective schools are the ones that embrace reducing chronic absence as an all hands on deck mentality. It cannot be relegated to one or two people in the school. And quite frankly if the classroom teacher is not involved, you are less likely to make significant and sustainable impacts.
The most effective schools also make improving attendance part of the improvement plan. A good plan for reducing chronic absence is the best academic achievement intervention plan you can have. If we don’t make that connection explicit, we are missing a great opportunity to have a focus on chronic absence reduction be a part of the holistic work of the school. If you intervene so a student is not missing school, the student is accessing instruction and thereby not falling behind academically.
In Meriden, the John Barry school [grades pre-K to 5] had a 21 percent chronic absence rate. Then 3-4 years later it was 8 percent. This was achieved after the school took an all hands on deck approach that included attendance in the school improvement plan, the principal’s goals, the accountability system and the teachers’ goals. The school achieved this success even with very high levels of need.
AW: Connecticut has been a superstar state gaining real reductions in chronic absence, and we are delighted that we continue to partner with you and your team.
Cardona: I attribute a lot of that success to the great work already underway in the CSDE, particularly by Charlene Russell-Tucker, recently promoted to Deputy Commissioner for Educational Supports and Wellness, who leads the effort along with the staff within the Office of Student Supports and Organizational Effectiveness. They have created a culture in the state that says, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and work together on this’. The culture is centered on the whole child approach and recognizes that poor attendance is a symptom of something going on with the student. So, a lot of the credit goes to them.
CSDE has developed Evidence-Based Practice Guides, Guidance on Reporting Attendance, an Attendance Awareness Campaign and more to help schools, districts and communities in Connecticut take action to improve attendance. For more information visit https://portal.ct.gov/SDE/Chronic-Absence/Chronic-Absence