Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Teaching Empty Seats: As the Harrisburg School District nears the end of its five-year recovery plan, how well has it improved student attendance?


Today’s American classrooms bear little resemblance to their counterparts of yore. Touch screen monitors have replaced blackboards, students exchange text messages in lieu of folded paper notes, and teachers tap-tap on tablets to distribute homework assignments and quizzes.

And yet, the most important issue in education today is one that’s as old as school itself: getting kids to show up.

In recent years, educational experts have identified chronic absenteeism—students missing 15 or more school days per year—as one of the single greatest impediments to a district’s academic success. A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education called chronic absenteeism “a hidden educational crisis” in America’s schools.

“Curbing absenteeism has to be a priority because it undermines all other good efforts in a school,” said Robert Balfanz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and a leading researcher on the harms of absenteeism. “Regular, consistent presence is a prerequisite for anything else to work.”

Balfanz, who leads the dropout prevention program, “Everyone Graduates,” has spent most of his career trying to answer one question: what keeps students from finishing high school? Time and again, he says, research has shown that a student’s attendance history is a better indicator than test scores at predicting his odds of graduating. A study Balfanz led in Philadelphia found that, if a student missed 20 days of school, his chance of graduating dropped as low as 10 percent. In Utah, researchers found that even a single year of chronic absenteeism between 8th and 12th grade could increase a student’s likelihood of dropping out seven-fold.

Like many urban school districts, Harrisburg schools have historically struggled with high rates of student absenteeism. The district recorded 45 percent of its 6,338 students as chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year, the last period for which data is publicly available. Nationally, the rate of chronically absent students that year was 14 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. *

Administrators in Harrisburg say that attendance-boosting initiatives strengthened under the district’s five-year recovery plan have stabilized school attendance rates. State data show that daily attendance averages in that time period are indeed consistent, but remain well below an acceptable level. Audrey Utley, the district’s chief recovery officer, said that the district won’t meet the attendance goals outlined in the recovery plan by the time it expires in June 2018.

Left unchecked, a high rate of chronic absence among students can impede any district’s academic performance. The good news is that a concerted effort to increase regular attendance can help a school raise test scores, graduation rates and student growth rates—even without changing any part of its curriculum. What can Harrisburg do to get there?

Devil’s in the Data

The idea that consistent attendance boosts student performance seems intuitive enough. According to Balfanz, however, the method that states have historically used to track attendance allows troubling rates of absenteeism—and the academic consequences they carry—to persist.

For every year since 2011, Harrisburg has logged an average daily attendance (ADA) rate between 88 and 90 percent. That metric represents how many students are present in school on an average day. Since ADA rates are aggregate figures, however, they don’t account for the fact that different students are absent on different days.

As a result, average daily attendance data can obfuscate a much higher incidence of chronically absent students, Balfanz said.

“Our tendency is to think that, if something is in the low 90s, we get an A,” Balfanz said. “But even at that ADA rate, you can still have a quarter or more of your kids chronically absent.”

Indeed, data from Harrisburg show that a middling ADA figure can mask a scourge of chronic absence. In 2013-14, the same year that 45 percent of Harrisburg students were chronically absent, the district reported an ADA of 88 percent, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data. By comparison, the district’s ADA for the 2015-16 school year was 89 percent.

Balfanz said that any district with an ADA under 95 percent likely has a significant problem with chronic absenteeism. That means that, even if Harrisburg schools did meet the attendance benchmark set by the recovery plan in 2011—which was to bring the district-wide ADA to 92 percent by 2018—they would not eradicate chronic absenteeism.

Pennsylvania is one of the 44 states in the country that does not require schools to report chronic absenteeism data. Jaime Foster, chief curriculum officer for the city school district, could not disclose its current rate of chronic absenteeism, citing student confidentiality concerns. She did claim that the figure is lower than it’s ever been.

“When you’re not in school when you should be, every day is like a new day,” Foster said. “The district’s efforts to monitor and support students who are chronically absent have significantly increased over the past three years.”

Foster said that Harrisburg schools issue letters to families when a student has accrued too many consecutive or non-consecutive absences. Teachers can also meet with parents to discuss their child’s attendance record or arrange for a social worker to visit a student’s home, Foster said. Jody Barksdale, president of the Harrisburg Education Association, added that school guidance counselors help communicate the value of attendance to families. Foster said that schools also offer incentives for regular attendance, such as class pizza parties or public recognition assemblies.

“These policies have always been in place, but now we’re implementing them with greater fidelity,”
Foster said.

However, the lack of significant improvement in the district’s attendance rates over the past five years cast doubt on the current methods for tracking and curtailing absences. What’s more, the misplaced focus on daily attendance averages, as opposed to chronic absentee data, could allow many students not to meet critical attendance thresholds.

As research shows, students who don’t meet those thresholds have greatly diminished graduation odds.

What’s a District to Do?

Chronic absenteeism is endemic to many urban districts across the country, which means that schools have tested a broad range of initiatives to curb the problem. According to Balfanz, reducing absence requires a multi-tier approach: preventative measures and interventions, incentives and opportunities to build relationships within school settings.

In Philadelphia schools, administrators have found that a simple postcard can go a long way to decreasing student absences.

Philadelphia schools participated in a federal Department of Education study in the 2014-15 school year that sent families postcards telling them how often their children missed school. Students who received a postcard missed, on average, one fewer day of school than students in a control group. Reitano said the experiment generated 20,000 days of additional attendance in the district that year. Taking into account the cost of the mailings, each day of attendance cost the district 6.96 cents.

One additional day of school may not seem like a lot, Reitano said, but it could make all the difference for a student teetering on the edge of chronic absence.

Mailings may be the most cost-effective method to produce modest attendance gains, but Reitano and other researchers know they won’t replace people-based initiatives. The consensus in the education community is that forging student relationships are the most effective way to encourage regular attendance. In Harrisburg, Foster agreed that teachers are “the number-one influence” in getting students to attend schools.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of the positive teacher and student relationship to improve the absenteeism rate,” Foster said. “It’s not climate, it’s not books. If you have a great teacher in front of you, you will want to come.”

In a district such as Harrisburg, however, the struggle to retain teachers throughout the school year can hamper a teacher-centered approach to curbing absenteeism. As of late November, 45 teachers had resigned from the district since the start of the academic year, according to the Harrisburg Education Association. What’s more, teachers in Harrisburg have their own checkered attendance record: 325 teachers (73 percent of the district faculty) were absent 10 or more school days in 2013-14, according to federal data.

The schools that see the most dramatic reductions in chronic absence are those where nonprofits and local agencies collaborate to provide integrated support to students. These programs often include individualized attention and mentorship for students.

In an attendance-boosting initiative in Pittsburgh, intern social workers were charged with tracking students with poor attendance records. The interns welcomed the students to school each morning, checked on them throughout the day and personally called the students’ homes when they were marked absent. Forty percent of the targeted at-risk students in that program showed an increase in their attendance. Through a similar program in Kent County, Mich., a coalition of nonprofits and state and county support caseworkers provide integrated support to at-risk students. In that county, the decision to post a DHS caseworker in select schools boosted attendance by a full week, according to the nonprofit AttendanceWorks.

In schools in Seattle and Philadelphia, young adult mentors provide in-class assistance, after school tutoring and cheery greetings to students as they arrive to school in the morning. Nonprofits like CityYear, Communities in Schools or Balfanz’s own Diplomas Now employ cadres of these young recruits to give students individual attention throughout the day—something teachers can’t always afford to do in large classes.

According to a report in the Seattle Times, two south Seattle middle schools that partnered with young adult mentors saw dramatic results in student test scores. In the three years after the schools began focusing on attendance, they reported a combined 79-percent drop in the number of students failing English and a 96-percent decrease in those failing math. The number of students with attendance problems fell by 15 percent.

“When it comes to absence, you have to change a behavior, and that’s very hard to do without a positive relationship with the student,” Balfanz said. “Very few of us change behaviors on our own.”

At the heart of a nationwide attendance epidemic lies a cruel irony: the very students who benefit the most from a stable school environment are those most likely to encounter barriers to entering it.

In an urban community like Harrisburg, those barriers align with all of the various deprivations of poverty—inadequate transportation and healthcare, as well as transient or tumultuous homes. Overcoming these obstacles can’t be the job of a school district alone. But as other, similarly struggling districts have shown, increasing student attendance and, by extension, graduation odds, may eliminate at least one significant hurdle on the path to leaving poverty.

*In a January 2018 interview, Audrey Utley, chief recovery officer for Harrisburg schools, defined chronic absence as students missing 10 or more days of school a year, not 15. Pennsylvania law offers yet another standard. According to a 2017 consolidated state plan published under the Every Student Succeeds Act, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year, or roughly 18 out of 180 school days. For the purposes of this story, chronic absenteeism was defined as 15 or more absences in a school year. This is the standard in a U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report, in which Harrisburg reported 45 percent of its student body as chronically absent.

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