One District Reaches Out to Address Chronic Absenteeism in Kids as Poll Reveals Alarming Rates

Richmond Public Schools undertook a major initiative to tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism, which affected nearly 40% of students post-pandemic.

Upon the full reopening of classrooms in the 2021-22 academic year, a significant number of seats remained vacant. Traditional methods of addressing absenteeism within the 22,000-student district were ineffective, prompting administrators to reevaluate their strategies.

Shadae Harris, the district’s chief engagement officer, was tasked with leading the effort to combat chronic absenteeism. Harris and her team opted to prioritize family engagement over punitive actions, such as juvenile justice system referrals, to boost attendance levels.

“To enhance student attendance, we needed to establish an engagement framework that centrally involved families,” Harris emphasized.

A recent national survey revealed that approximately 1 in 4 students are frequently absent, underscoring a widespread lack of awareness among parents regarding chronic absenteeism.

Parents’ Union co-founder Keri Rodrigues pointed out, “Many parents are not fully aware of chronic absenteeism as a problem or its extent.”

Raquajah Battle distributes breakfast treats at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. (Richmond Public Schools)

The survey conducted by the National Parents Union in March indicated that 16% of respondents had children absent for six to 10 days during the 2023-24 academic year. Moreover, only 8% believed their child was more absent compared to their peers.

According to Attendance Works, students are considered chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of school days, leading to potential academic challenges, poverty risks, and increased dropout rates.

Harris initiated multiple family engagement projects during the 2021-22 period, including the establishment of an attendance dashboard on the district’s website and home visits by teachers to families with absent children, resulting in over 40,000 visits completed.

Through these initiatives, Harris emphasized, “By prioritizing relationships and trust-building, we identified the root causes behind the absences, including health, medical, transportation, and housing issues.”

Efforts to support families facing housing challenges resulted in more than 130 families being relocated to stable accommodations with grant funding secured by the district.

To foster greater family-school collaboration, Richmond Public Schools deployed personnel as family liaisons rather than attendance officers, promoting supportive involvement through initiatives like the “We Love You Here” campaign.

Darryl Williams leads a morning fist-bump tunnel at Fairfield Court Elementary School. (Richmond Public Schools)

In addressing persistent absenteeism, Harris introduced an alternative approach by hosting court hearings at a local middle school with community resources available to families, emphasizing support over punitive measures.

The survey conducted by the Parents Union identified various reasons for chronic absences, including physical illness, medical appointments, weather conditions, family emergencies, and vacation plans.

According to the survey respondents, 56% believed that parents should be held legally accountable for their child’s excessive school absences. While 11% felt enhancing school engagement could address absenteeism, only 6% emphasized the necessity of improved parent-school interactions.

Harris attributed Richmond Public Schools’ decreased chronic absenteeism rate from 25% in 2022-23 to 19% by the end of 2023-24 to the emphasis on family engagement.

Focusing on building relationships and listening to families’ needs, Harris stressed, “Empowering families and truly understanding what motivates and brings joy to them is the key to addressing chronic absenteeism.”

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