Mentors, wake-up calls to students, incentives and weekly “student success” meetings led by principals helped New York City significantly cut chronic absenteeism in schools, according to a new report by the Everyone Graduates Center at The Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
The report, “Meeting the Challenge of Combating Chronic Absenteeism,” examines the impact of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s task force on truancy, chronic absenteeism and school engagement, a program that spanned 2010 to 2013 and reached more than 60,000 students.
The study of the task force’s efforts in 100 New York City public schools by Johns Hopkins researchers Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes found students who missed at least 20 days of school per year, the definition of chronic absenteeism, had lower grades and were more likely to drop out than students with better attendance. Yet, the researchers also found these effects of absenteeism are reversible.
“Chronic absenteeism is an unseen force, like bacteria in a hospital, that wreaks havoc with our efforts to use our schools as pathways from poverty to adult success,” said Balfanz, research scientist and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center. “But this report shows that once we understand the dimensions of the problem, it is possible to organize relatively low-cost and broadly reproducible responses that can prevent it from occurring and can mitigate its impacts.”
The single most effective action by the task force was creating the NYC Success Mentor Corps, which paired at-risk students with school staff, retirees, social work students, AmeriCorps volunteers and high-school seniors. Students who had been chronically absent gained almost two additional weeks in school per year once they had a mentor. The attendance of some students with mentors rose by an entire month.
The task force also created an incentive program to recognize good attendance. Success was rewarded with tickets to events, privileges at school, certificates of honor and being singled out at school assemblies.
Absenteeism awareness was another goal of the task force, which created a campaign, “It’s 9 a.m., do you know where your kids are?” that was posted on buses, subways and MetroCards. Additionally, the task force recruited celebrities, including Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Whoopi Goldberg, to record wake-up calls that went out last year to 30,000 students.
Researchers conclude that these cost-effective strategies can cut absenteeism, increase attendance and improve academic outcomes not only in New York City, but likely could work across the country, where an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students miss nearly a month of school every year.
The report also found that:
- Task force schools significantly and consistently outperformed other schools in reducing absenteeism.
- Students in poverty at task force schools were 15 percent less likely to be chronically absent.
- Students in homeless shelters at task force schools were 31 percent less likely to be chronically absent.
- Students who stopped being chronically absent saw academic improvement and were more likely to stay in school. They also were more likely to remain in school in the years following intervention.
Schools participating in the mayor’s task force initiative significantly reduced the number of chronically absent students while increasing the number of students who attended at least 95 percent of the year.
Download the full report, available here in pdf.
Download the Technical Appendix, available here in pdf.
The report’s release coincided with an online summit 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. EST Nov. 20, hosted by Bloomberg, Balfanz and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, that will address the scope of chronic absenteeism and share solutions other cities can adopt.
Download a copy of the press release, available here on the Johns Hopkins University website.
“I am really, really proud this year at school, and I like it more now that I’m there all the time. I used to be out a lot, I missed 29 days last year – but only 3 so far this year – and no more. My success mentor is the reason I will never miss school. She greets me every day, comes to my room and says good morning to me. She helped me and my family learn that I had to come every day. And she helped us solve a big problem at home so I could get to school every day.”
5th grade mentee at Task Force pilot school.
“The school really helped us understand that my son had to be in school every day, no matter what. I have a chronically ill child, and it’s really hard – my son just sort of got lost. So he just didn’t get to school. The school gave him a mentor who made him want to come every day, and made me do my best to get him there. The mentor helped us figure out how to solve the problem keeping him from school. He loves school now, his attendance is great and his grades are better too. I really thank the school for what they did.”
Parent in Task Force pilot school, Partnered with Success Mentor to improve son’s attendance and performance
“I have been a teacher for 18 years, but I have helped my students this year as a success mentor in ways I could never have fathomed. The [Task Force) program allowed me to understand why the students weren’t coming to school, and let me reverse those patterns in lots of cases. I was able to reach out to parents, get their trust, and let them know why missing school was hurting their kids. I saw kids improve their attendance, and then their grades. Attendance and school performance go hand-in-hand. Letting parents know that helps.”
Internal Success Mentor (teacher) at Task Force pilot school