The key to curbing Ohio’s chronic absenteeism? Community partnerships and early intervention
Chronic absenteeism is a problem in Ohio.
Last school year, around a fourth of Ohio’s students were considered chronically absent – meaning they’ve missed 10% or more of school hours, according to the Ohio Department of Education. School districts in Youngstown, Lorain, Garfield Heights, Cleveland, Columbus, East Cleveland and Lockland all had chronic absenteeism rates of more than 50 percent in the 2022-2023 school year.
It’s more than just playing hooky. These absences have a real impact on students’ futures. Those who are chronically absent are less likely to graduate than their peers and more likely to fall behind in reading comprehension.
The Ohio Department Education and Workforce formed a taskforce of school and business leaders to tackle the problem. Late last fall, they unveiled a series of recommendations, which Fordham Institute education policy analyst, Jessica Poiner says show promise in a time of urgent need.
“That shift to remote instruction and online learning that we had during the pandemic made school look different for parents and students and families,” Poiner said. “And as a result, parents and families often mistakenly believe that being in-person in school has less value.”
Of the five recommendations offered by the taskforce, Poiner said two stand out in importance: building community awareness and increasing family engagement.
Although schools play a huge role in making sure students make it into the classrooms, Poiner said local businesses can also aid in the effort. That could look like partnering with restaurants to promote attendance through incentive programs or bringing in health providers to conduct appointments before and after school, so students won’t have to miss class to go to the doctor’s.
“All these organizations and people who interact with parents and kids on a regular basis who have this ability to influence and to send these messages about just how important it is, both in the short-term and long-term for kids to be in school regularly,” said Poiner.
It’s also essential that schools actively establish trusting relationships with families and students throughout the school year. Poiner said districts shouldn’t wait until there’s a problem to reach out to families, but send personalized interactions to parents from the very beginning.
“There's studies that show that sending text messages to parents that express concern and offer assistance can actually reduce chronic absenteeism,” she said. “So things like that that are just small but personalized and positive and happen regularly, that's really important.”
While much of the report suggests action for school district leaders, the taskforce also said the state legislature has a role in curbing chronic absenteeism. Namely, shifting the focus to prevention and early intervention strategies.
As of now, state law focuses on how to address absenteeism once it’s already hit the level of truancy. The taskforce suggests being more proactive, by allocating resources toward prevention strategies. It also recommends more flexibility in how schools can communicate with families – like allowing text, rather than mail.
Poiner said the state also needs to protect the data collection of chronic absenteeism.
“We have to understand the problem and have to be able to track whether or not we're fixing the problem before we can actually do anything worthwhile,” she said.
The taskforce lauded the Ohio Department of Education’s Stay in the Game! Attendance Network, an organization connects districts to resources, as a real pathway for change. It recommends expanding the network from just 35 districts into a statewide resource that any school can tap into.
The report also points to real-time examples of how some school districts across the state have decreased their rates of chronic absenteeism, offering some hope for school leaders struggling with the issue.
For example, the Dayton Early College Academy reduced their rates of chronic absenteeism by 11% in one school year. They regularly sent positive postcards home to families, they partnered with the local children’s hospital and they interviewed students and families to determine what the barriers to attendance were in the community.
“There are things that work,” Poiner said. “You can get positive results if you just kind of roll up your sleeves and do the work.”