The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 19, 2016

People and place matter when addressing chronic absenteeism

April 19, 2016

In the United States, 1 in 10 students is chronically absent. Students who are chronically absent—those who miss 10 percent or more of the school year—receive lower grades and are less likely to graduate from high school. Attending school every day is vital to a student’s success, making chronic absence one of the biggest threats to a student’s ability to perform well in school.

Often, students are absent because of challenging family circumstances or because they are dealing with physical and mental health issues. Geography also plays a role: students living in poorer neighborhoods generally have more trouble with school and attendance. Because a child’s individual characteristics and neighborhood can influence his or her academic success, policymakers and educators must begin to view chronic absenteeism as more than just an education issue.

To fully understand the causes of chronic absenteeism, better data are needed. Although not yet common, using integrated data systems (IDS), which link individual-level records from multiple government agencies on a periodic basis, is one option. An even better option is combining IDS with data about a student’s neighborhood. This approach allows decisionmakers to better understand why students are absent, shows the challenges they might face a as result of their family situation or neighborhood, and reveals what interventions might be best.

The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a peer learning network led by the Urban Institute, is currently working with local organizations to increase access to IDS to inform such policies and interventions.  Organizations who are members of NNIP maintain information systems with regularly updated data on their local neighborhoods have a high capacity for analysis, and, as a result, are equipped to use IDS to help policymakers better understand local policy issues such as chronic absenteeism. 

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR), an NNIP partner organization, worked with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. They found that certain neighborhood characteristics (e.g., high rates of violent crime and low median home prices) and property characteristics (e.g., age of a student’s home and tax delinquency) were linked to higher levels of chronic absenteeism for students in Pittsburgh’s public schools. Additionally, researchers found that students who switched schools mid-year, possibly because of a move, were more likely to struggle with chronic absenteeism. Other individual and family factors, such as enrollment in human service programs and receipt of public benefits, also played a role.

Based on UCSUR’s research, stakeholders are creating a plan to work with community development corporations to improve housing and neighborhood conditions, assist families with housing needs, and reduce student mobility. To better serve students who switch schools mid-year, the Pittsburgh public school district is working on making school moves less disruptive. First on their agenda is reducing delays in school bus route assignment, one of the main causes of increased absences among students who move.

As is happening in Pittsburgh, any future efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism must account for the way place influences a student’s life. Interventions that focus on outreach and educating parents and students about the importance of attending school regularly can be effective, but they often fail to address the place-based challenges, such as higher asthma rates and higher levels of mobility, which can also be barriers to maintaining a good attendance record. Given the effect neighborhoods have on academic success and chronic absenteeism, combining individual-level data from an IDS with neighborhood data can better inform communities and improve interventions to help students succeed.

This work is the result of a three-year cross-site project, Connecting People and Place: Improving Communities through Integrated Data Systems, led by the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership with support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Six partners, including UCSUR, worked on projects ranging from energy assistance to civic engagement to homelessness. More information on the cross-site project and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership is available here. If you are interested in learning more about integrated data systems and chronic absenteeism, check out the Urban Institute’s policy brief.

Eight-year-old Divya Dahal walks home from school with a group of grade school children escorted by Allyson Trenteseaux, a Walking School Bus program manager, center right, in Providence, R.I. on May 20, 2014. Photo by Steven Senne/AP

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