Last year when many states were seeing an increase in chronic absenteeism, Louisiana experienced a decrease. Critical to this success is the state’s emphasis on a restorative approach instead of punishment, coordinating strategies at the state level and building staff capacity.
This improvement in attendance has involved changes in state policies and practices, such as the statewide Louisiana Comeback campaign and a new cross-agency task force launched by the State Superintendent of Education. The state also instituted new professional development offerings to increase understanding of chronic absenteeism, improve data collection and utilize a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) to address attendance barriers. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) also created a new position to focus on and elevate this work within the state.
Perhaps most consequential has been a new framework for the state’s Child Welfare and Attendance (CWA) professionals that emphasizes a restorative approach to improving chronic absenteeism. The chronic absence rate was 28% at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and dropped to 19.4% in 2021-22, according to data maintained by (LDOE). This brought the statewide rate much closer to the 16.1% chronic absence level seen before the pandemic and reported to the U.S. Department of Education.*
Like many states Louisiana experienced sky rocketing levels of chronic absenteeism coupled with dropping test scores in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic. State Superintendent Cade Brumley launched the Louisiana Comeback commitment in 2021, calling on local systems and schools to focus on attendance and well-being, recovery and acceleration and professional learning. The Comeback includes a mission change for the state Child Welfare and Attendance (CWA) professionals, a cadre of individuals who focus on student attendance, academic achievement and social development with support systems that consider student, family and schools concerns.
“Child Welfare and Attendance professionals were known as punitive” in Louisiana, said Shelneka Adams, the new Child Welfare and Attendance Liaison in LDOE. Today CWAs commit to act as advocates working with families using a restorative approach. Adams, an enthusiastic professional with a background in student and social services, is dedicated to ensuring that families and students feel respected, supported and are partners in solutions to chronic absenteeism.
LDOE launched a new webpage for CWAs and created a digital Child Welfare and Attendance Reference Guide that can be updated as policies change. Monthly Zoom meetings with the CWAs provide inspiration, professional development and tools and resources for them to use in the field. One favorite resource is the Basic Needs Closet. Adams encourages schools to create closets, advertise them to students as families, identify a responsible staff person to monitor the contents and reach out to the community for replenishment when supplies run low. Adding a sign-in to use the Basic Needs Closet helps schools track at-risk students/families who may need additional support.
CWAs also can share attendance awards, including an Improvement in Attendance recognition that lets families know that that award is for them, because they’ve put in the work to make sure their kids’ attendance has improved.
CWA meetings include updates to policies and revised statutes addressing attendance and discipline. “How someone treats and interacts and disciplines a child, it can definitely impact their attendance,” said Adams.
To support the efforts of CWA professionals, in June 2021, LDOE partnered with the Social Research and Evaluation Center at Louisiana State University (LSU) to create the Louisiana Attendance Alliance Initiative to address chronic absenteeism in Pre-K-12 schools. This fall, CWA professionals were provided access to training and a toolkit to develop plans of action to support schools to address chronic absence and students facing challenges related to the pandemic. Also last year, CWAs gathered at the Child Welfare and Attendance Summit, which has become an annual event. LDOE is following up on this work with an outside evaluation.
In July 2022, the state launched a Success Through Attendance Recovery (STAR) Task Force, to identify critical truancy, attendance and dropout issues, and develop recommendations. As a cross-agency group, STAR membership is composed of a variety of agencies and key stakeholders, including those that represent foster children, the judicial system and courts, and health issues. Among its goals, STAR will analyze statewide and system-level attendance and truancy data, work to improve structural changes to support attendance and truancy recovery initiatives, and create a strategic plan with recommendations to address the state’s current attendance and truancy crisis.
Essential to the state’s current approach to addressing chronic absence is a positive, problem-solving approach, grounded in an understanding that students learn when they feel emotionally safe. Louisiana students experienced a number of traumatic events prior to the introduction of Covid-19, including the devastating Hurricane Katrina and the slow recovery that followed. The state’s attendance approach realizes that psychosocial interventions are needed following traumatic experiences.
Today, CWA directors, supervisors, and attendance stakeholders are applying MTSS to improve student attendance. MTSS is used in schools but had not been part of CWA work. “One of the things I’ve learned is it’s really good if we’re all speaking the same language,” said Adams. “If we’re talking about MTSS for academics and we’re talking about MTSS for behavior, why wouldn’t we align MTSS with attendance as well?”
Within MTSS, addressing the psychosocial needs of all students is a Tier-1, foundational level of support. “I’ve seen what works, and starting off with addressing psychosocial needs of students has always promoted better attendance,”Adams said.
* Chronic absence data maintained by LDOE is similar but slightly different from the data reported to the U.S. Department of Education and published in ED Data Express due to the use of slightly different data parameters.
For more information about Louisiana’s attendance strategies, contact Shelneka Adams, Child Welfare and Attendance Liaison, Louisiana Department of Education, Shelneka.Adams@la.gov