Spotlight on School Attendance: Why It Matters and How You Can Help

Spotlight on Attendance: Q & A with Kenyatta Wheeler

We recently spoke with Kenyatta Wheeler, our Director of Program Operations for Intensive Case Management and Newcomer Services, about the significant increase in chronic absenteeism among students since the COVID-19 pandemic. She shares the most recent data, why this is such a critical issue, and how the community can help support students and families to increase attendance.

Q:  Most people are likely aware that school attendance fell significantly during the pandemic. But what is the most recent data showing? What are you seeing in our schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg today?

A:  Let me begin by defining the term “chronic absenteeism,” which is used in our schools to identify students who have missed 10% or more of the school year, typically about 18 days. In the wake of the pandemic, chronic absenteeism has increased significantly, not just in CMS, but nationwide. CMS reports that more than 1 in 4 students (29%) were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year, which is more than twice as high as before the pandemic. This is a great concern, as chronic absenteeism affects academic success across all grade levels. And if left unaddressed before a student enters middle school, chronic absenteeism becomes the leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school and not graduate.

Q:  Are you seeing trends/concerns with specific groups of students, or is chronic absenteeism found across the board and across all age levels?

A:  Chronic absenteeism occurs across all grade levels, from elementary to middle to high school. But the data shows that students who live in poverty are three times more likely to be chronically absent than their peers with more resources. For students from low-income backgrounds, there was already an academic achievement gap before the pandemic, and now, the achievement gap is at risk of growing even wider due to the higher chronic absenteeism we are still seeing today, nearly three years out from the pandemic’s onset. These are the students who can least afford to miss school if we want to close the achievement gap and ensure that all kids have equitable opportunities for future success.

Q:  Communities In Schools has always placed a strong focus on attendance and working to remove obstacles that are keeping students from having good attendance and success in school. But what are you seeing now that is different from before – prior to the pandemic – that is making this a more challenging prospect?  Can you share examples of the challenges or barriers that some students face and why they are either chronically absent or not returning to school at all?

A:  There are many factors that contribute to poor attendance in school. Factors such as school climate, housing and food insecurity, barriers to transportation, bullying, and other systemic inequities can have a negative impact on attendance. The pandemic exacerbated many of these factors, and created situations where students felt compelled to work to support or help replace a parent’s loss of income. Some students were needed or expected by their parents to help care for their younger siblings, if parents did not have or could not afford childcare. Some of this has carried over since the pandemic, especially with students who found employment during this period – their families have become dependent on the additional income and the student may feel stressed and conflicted about quitting work in order to return to school. Others have fallen far behind in their credits due to working or the challenges of remote instruction, so they are discouraged and do not see how the benefits of a diploma will outweigh their current employment. CIS is working with students that are in these situations to help them formulate a plan to meet their needs, whether that is helping them navigate the options within CMS, exploring other avenues to complete their high school education, or enrolling in a vocational program or trade school.

Q:  Most people understand that kids dropping out and not graduating high school is detrimental to these young people personally, and the community in general. However, for those of us without kids who haven’t been focused on the issue, how does chronic absenteeism affect us and the community at large?

A:  Well, we have already mentioned the academic achievement gap, which leads to inequitable opportunities and outcomes for students from low income backgrounds. If you believe that all kids should have an equal shot and equitable resources to achieve success in life, then you ought to be concerned that we are allowing this cycle of generational poverty to continue – if we do not, as a community, address chronic absenteeism.

It affects all of us from an economic standpoint, too. Business owners and employers will face a depleted workforce, without enough prospective employees who have the basic skills and academic credentials needed to compete in the 21st century. Students who are chronically absent often do not develop the “soft skills” that employers expect them to possess and they lack the foundation needed to develop positive work habits as adults. Young adults who are not prepared or qualified to obtain living wage jobs are not able to contribute to our local economy and may need social services or other subsidies. The significant increase in absenteeism in our schools, if left unaddressed, will most likely lead to thousands more students dropping out of school and not graduating, which exacerbates all of these issues.

Q:  What is CIS doing to help turn this around and reduce chronic absenteeism?  What can others do to help?

A:  Thank you for this question!  The good news is, we believe that chronic absenteeism can be reduced when the community pulls together to intervene. We want everyone – not just parents and teachers –  to have awareness of the issue and help promote a culture of strong attendance with kids and families. Our goal is not just to improve attendance, but to nurture our students’ curiosity and desire to learn – we want them to want to be in school every day!   

CIS, in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Bank of America, and the Charlotte Hornets has just launched a new initiative that calls on the corporate community to get involved. You can learn more about Attendance+ on our website, but in a nutshell, it is asking businesses and community partners to donate incentives such as tickets to sporting events, museums, concerts, or other experiences that can be used to motivate behavioral change and to reward students, parents, teachers and schools as they achieve their attendance goals. We are asking companies to help host or underwrite attendance celebration events. There are other opportunities for companies to provide college and career readiness support. But everyone in the community can help by spreading awareness about the role that attendance plays in improving both academic and longer-term outcomes. If we all help build an “it’s cool to be in school” culture and show students and families that we care about their future by being involved in our schools and supportive of attendance initiatives, we will succeed – and we will all benefit.