How to Improve School Attendance

A Practical Guide for Schools and School Districts
A Project of the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council


Task Force Recommendations 

The SATF's February 2012 report, A Comprehensive Approach to Improving Student Attendance in Los Angeles County, reflected the ongoing consistent and committed efforts of all stakeholder groups to increase school attendance and enhance the educational experience of our children, thus improving the quality of their lives and, in turn, the quality of life for others in our communities.

  To download the full report: ECC 2012 Report

The recommendations in the February report—developed after months of discussion, research, and information-sharing—created a blueprint for countywide agencies, schools, the juvenile court, law enforcement, municipalities, communities, and parents, guardians, and caregivers that, if implemented, will result in significant attendance improvements and stronger student outcomes.

With respect to school districts, the SATF report recommends that they establish a sensible and sustainable district-wide model for ensuring that students regularly attend and stay in school by incorporating the critical elements of recognized, proven approaches such as the examples in this manual. Many districts already have structures in place that are chieving positive results, but most could be strengthened or modified to fully achieve these recommendations. All districts are encouraged to draw on these programs where they could be helpful.

Further, districts are encouraged to:

1.   Focus on proven universal strategies such as:

round Bullet  Effective and engaging instruction (such as Big Picture Learning's one-student-at-a-time, advisor-led, project-based approach), and proven alternative-school models for students with challenging or special needs

round Bullet  Transforming schools to create a positive culture with high expectations, a welcoming environment, excellent management, good teachers, a solid curriculum, strong parent involvement and engagement, and learning environments that are culturally relevant and respectful of the skills and knowledge students bring to school; in these schools, for example, if a student is missing from school, staff members may go to their homes and knock on the door to find out what's wrong

round Bullet  Teaching good attendance practices to families and students

2.   Create a strong attendance data collection and dissemination system that helps target interventions early and often.

round Bullet  Ensure that teachers submit attendance information on a daily basis.

round Bullet  Collect and regularly publish school-district attendance data that include a strong focus on chronic absences and severe chronic absences, and that highlight suspensions and other out-of-school exclusions, in addition to excused and unexcused absences.

round Bullet  Make accurate, real-time attendance data available to individual schools and their community partners to drive agency decision-making.

round Bullet  Disaggregate attendance data by key demographic and educational categories.

round Bullet  Address all absences, including those that are excused and unexcused.

round Bullet  Set yearly concrete, measurable, and well-publicized attendance goals by school and by district.

round Bullet  Record the reason(s) for student absences, so that appropriate school and support staff can address their underlying causes.

round Bullet  Build an individualized early-warning system that uses multiple measures of attendance and suspensions.

round Bullet  Require school sites to review data daily and weekly to identify students with needs and provide them with appropriate interventions.

round Bullet  If the early-warning system is triggered, school attendance office staff immediately respond by, for example, convening a Student Study Team meeting or a meeting with the student and parent at which the importance of attendance is shared and strategies and services are offered.

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3.   Reduce school-initiated exclusions.

round Bullet  Have zero tolerance for zero-tolerance policies.

round Bullet  Adopt district-wide positive behavior support plans and school-wide discipline plans that create alternatives to exclusions (see Discipline Foundation Policy School-Wide Positive Behavior Support Program in Appendix D for a link to the Los Angeles Unified School District's PBIS plan).

round Bullet  Ensure that the school's discipline code requires that initial interventions be made prior to suspensions for minor offenses, that it restricts the use of suspensions for "defiance/disruption," and that it promotes affirmatively teaching positive behavior and providing pro-social behavior lessons to students who violate school rules.

round Bullet  Set clear and ambitious goals by school and by district for reducing suspensions and expulsions across the board and for particular subgroups, such as African-Americans, who are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

round Bullet  Inform the juvenile court, youth-serving county departments, and advocates prior to student expulsions, suspensions, or opportunity transfers.

round Bullet  Use the juvenile court's 317e Panel for alternative solutions.

round Bullet  Cease end-of-the-year "push-outs" or "force-outs."

4.   Partner with families early and often.

round Bullet  Invite family participation early on by making person-to-person contact on the same day of an absence or tardy, and explain how attendance is tied to successful outcomes such as high school graduation and employment.

round Bullet  Adopt problem-solving strategies for students who are chronically absent, and work closely with parents to alleviate the reasons behind their child's poor attendance (for example, absences due to asthma or other chronic medical conditions).

round Bullet  Find ways to honor and reward parents for their child's good attendance in pre-school through the eighth grade.

round Bullet  Create a structured parent education program that is continuously offered to all parents, especially those who have students with attendance issues. This program should:

round Bullet  Offer parents specific suggestions on how to support their children in school and get involved in their education (see Appendix F for background materials on the Alhambra Unified School District's Parent University and its Incredible Years program).

round Bullet  Ensure that these suggestions are "doable" for all parents, particularly for those who may have struggled in school themselves.

round Bullet  Educate parents about the basic things they can do to establish a school-going culture in their home, such as annual health and dental check-ups, an adequate night's sleep, morning routines that allow enough time for travel and breakfast, etc.

round Bullet  Include questions on parent surveys about attendance, such as when and why it is difficult to get their children to school and how schools can help.

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5.   Create a communication/media campaign regarding the importance of attendance.

round Bullet  Make the first-day-of-school enrollment and regular attendance during the first two weeks of school a top priority for schools, city government, county and city agencies, and community organizations and partners.

round Bullet  Communicate frequently with parents and families about the importance of regular and on-time attendance and use a variety of messengers, languages, and formats to ensure that these messages are heard and reinforced.

round Bullet  Use positive, motivational messages for students, including stories that illustrate the advantages of staying in school.

round Bullet  Identify corporate, media, cultural, and elected-official supporters to help carry positive and pro-active messages.

6.   Create a uniform system at each school site that focuses on prevention and intervention.

round Bullet  Prevention, intervention, and recovery should be the focus, rather than punishment and legal intervention.

round Bullet  Immediately identify at-risk and truant youth, refer them for a comprehensive assessment, and provide a continuum of services for assisting them.

round Bullet  Develop an individualized, comprehensive plan for students with the most intense needs, which includes incentives, prevention, intervention, and credit-recovery strategies and services, relationship-building, case management, and other tools that address the root causes of truancy.

round Bullet  Ensure that school counselors and staff are trained to provide daily supports and interventions to students with attendance concerns.

7.   Maximize partnerships to ensure a range of services that address the root causes of truancy.

round Bullet  Partner with the county Departments of Health, Public Health, and Mental Health, along with community and faith-based organizations, to publicize available services, stress their importance, create a network of services, and address parental concerns.

round Bullet  Maximize health partnerships to ensure that students receive annual health, dental, and vision examinations and appropriate mental health services.

round Bullet  Increase the use of holistic wellness centers on school campuses, such as those established at Washington Prep and Fremont High Schools.

round Bullet  Create more partnerships between government agencies to deliver integrated services on school campuses, such as the Gloria Molina Foster Youth Education Program model through which social workers are outstationed on campuses to create and implement education plans for foster youth.

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8.   Focus on high-need populations, schools, grades, and times of year.

round Bullet  Develop an indicator showing the number of school years during which a student has been chronically absent, include this indicator on key school reports, and focus attendance efforts on children with multiple periods of chronic absence.

round Bullet  Ensure that school-based health staff use attendance and chronic-absence data to target their outreach and prioritize services and follow-up care for dental, nutrition, asthma, mental health, or other health needs.

round Bullet  Encourage schools with poor attendance to budget for a full-time, dedicated attendance monitor, and make attendance the first priority of their school improvement plan.

round Bullet  Focus on attendance in key transition grades—kindergarten, first, fifth, sixth, eighth, and ninth (depending on elementary and middle school feeder patterns)—and provide additional attention and interventions in these grades.

round Bullet  Partner with and help train early childhood organizations, such as Head Start, Zero to Three, and LAUP, to emphasize the importance of pre-K and kindergarten attendance.

round Bullet  Encourage schools to use student mobility as a trigger for additional academic and support services, and to pay special attention to the attendance of highly mobile students, such as homeless youth and youth in foster care.

9.   Utilize rewards and attendance incentives at the individual student, class, grade and school levels.

round Bullet  Adopt a ratio of four incentives (for example, public recognition for improved attendance, gift certificates for perfect attendance, daily praise for student attendance, bonus points) to each single consequence to align with research findings on behavior change and effective attendance and student engagement initiatives.

round Bullet  Require every school to have monthly attendance incentives and publicize positive attendance.

round Bullet  Provide "high-value" incentives for the highest-attending students and schools.

10. Provide training to all school staff.

round Bullet  Provide training on school attendance policies, procedures, and responsibilities to all staff who affect attendance, and hold staff accountable for following them.

round Bullet  Ensure that attendance-office and other key school staff are trained to recognize and help highly mobile, homeless, or foster-care students stay enrolled in their current schools, to expedite enrollment changes when necessary, and to provide material supports and encouragement to enable regular attendance.

round Bullet  Provide professional development for principals and teachers to help them improve attendance.

round Bullet  Provide school-wide cross-training that emphasizes the importance of a welcoming and supportive climate, progressive discipline, and regular staff attendance.

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11. Address transportation and safety barriers so it is easier, safer, and quicker to get to school.

round Bullet  Provide easier and more frequent opportunities for parents and students to give feedback about transportation (public transit, for example) services and needs, such as adding a texting or on-line complaint hotline or some questions to an annual school survey.

round Bullet  Work with public transit systems to change schedules and stops to promote school attendance and timeliness.

round Bullet  Secure corporate and other sponsors to provide transit passes to students attending schools in low-income areas.

round Bullet  Consider awarding different types of transit passes to students, varying the time, allowable routes, and number of rides depending upon the student's age, prior attendance, and school performance. This could include awarding unrestricted daily bus passes to very high-attending/performing high school students.

round Bullet  Develop more community watch, safe passage, and other programs that involve teachers, school staff, city government, community and faith-based organizations, parents, and family members in efforts to protect students on their way to and from school.

round Bullet  Solicit funding for a transportation system review to investigate creating alternative bus systems, such as the network of mini-buses and hub-and-spoke system developed in Denver.

round Bullet  Implement a transportation texting campaign to gather more current information regarding public transportation service, and investigate the demand for and the cost of providing yellow-bus service for the (few) sixth-grade students who have to transfer.

12. Increase the role of the youth voice in schools and learn from youth how to improve attendance.

round Bullet  Establish forums, suggestion boxes, and listening tours to hear from students about what would help them get to school regularly and on time, and what would make them engage in their classes.

round Bullet  Involve students in the planning of transition plans, IEPs, school course selections, middle and high school choices, and so on.

round Bullet  Ensure that an established student-governance structure exists at secondary schools.

round Bullet  Expand student school climate surveys to solicit suggestions about desired services, classes, and activities, and add a "What would make it more likely that you would come to school regularly?" question.

13. Integrate the SARB process with the broader attendance initiative and utilize SARB referrals only after documented interventions have not worked and only in connection with mental health and other resource-based strategies.

14. Refer truancy issues to law-enforcement agencies only as a last resort, and only if school staff can document multiple failed interventions.

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