Promising Results Seen in One-On-One Outreach Aimed at Reducing School Absenteeism

When outreach worker Leah Marks visits households in Sanford, Maine — a small manufacturing town located 18 miles inland and in stark contrast to upscale Kennebunkport — children recognize it’s time to accompany her to the school bus.

Her treks often navigate through snow and ice during this season. However, it’s mainly about forging connections.

Marks, the outreach coordinator for Sanford schools, recounted a story about a boy she escorted, who reduced his absences from 45 days last school year to just one this year. She mentioned that the child’s single mother is raising him along with two siblings, one of whom has a disability. The family had been struggling to ensure he made it to the bus on time.

With the support of these walks, he now engages with his friends during the journey and eagerly anticipates meeting the assistant principal at school. Marks applauded the remarkable progress, stating, “Chris is tremendously proud of his improvement, and so is his mother.”

She emphasized the comfort parents feel when their children are accompanied to school. It signifies “being able to assure a parent seeing off their child to school that ‘we’ve got them’ and will ensure they have breakfast.”

School experts point out that students’ lack of connection to school stands as a major factor contributing to high absenteeism nationwide. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, regular school attendance has sharply declined.

Education workers emphasize that establishing one-on-one connections plays a pivotal role in re-engaging students. This process is meticulous, demanding resources and unwavering dedication. Several states, including Maine, are increasing their investments or introducing initiatives to address absenteeism.

In the 2021-2022 school year, nearly 30% of public school students across the country were classified as chronically absent, in contrast to about 16% in 2017-2018 before the pandemic, according to Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Chronic absenteeism entails a student missing a minimum of one-tenth of the school year for various reasons.

Studies have revealed that student absences can negatively impact test scores and contribute to an increased dropout rate.

In Maine, the percentage of students considered chronically absent decreased slightly last school year, dropping from 31% in 2021-22 to 27% in 2022-23, as reported by the Maine Department of Education. Marcus Mrowka, a spokesperson for the department, expressed optimism about the drop but stressed that the figures are still unacceptably high.

He attributed the elevated absenteeism rates to various factors, including the cautious approach taken by parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, which leads them to keep children at home at the first sign of illness. In addition, he cited increased stress levels, mental health concerns, and overall well-being issues as contributing to students feeling less engaged in school.

Maine is utilizing $10 million in emergency federal funds to roll out programs aimed at improving attendance, as confirmed by Mrowka.

For attendance rates to surge, schools must offer safe and intellectually stimulating environments, and students must sense a feeling of belonging, knowing that adults care about their welfare, as per Attendance Works.

“Establishing relationships is absolutely crucial in all aspects of this endeavor,” affirmed Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works.

“The pandemic destabilized these conditions for a considerable number of students. When we closed schools … we conveyed the message that being at school is unhealthy. Now, we are advocating for a return to school, emphasizing that it’s beneficial,” she added.

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