AUSTIN, Texas — As schools are reporting an uptick in student absences and chronic absenteeism following COVID-19, school counselors can help increase student attendance through districtwide and data-grounded initiatives, said counselors during a breakout session at the American School Counselor Association's annual conference on Sunday.
"Sometimes, kids just need a reason to come to school," said Vicki Price, senior director for counseling services at Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, counselor's efforts increased attendance by an average of slightly over two weeks for approximately 3,000 students over three years.
These initiatives should be approached from a "tier 1" perspective where interventions are used on a larger pool of students, rather than a "tier 3" approach where schools only address students who have already racked up a number of absences.
Still, improvements might not be immediate and could take multiple school years to pay off, Price and Heather Fried, Albuquerque Public Schools' elementary resource counselor told attendees. Districtwide initiatives may also require counselor and parent buy-in, they said.
In Albuquerque, counselors used different strategies for elementary, middle and high schoolers. In elementary schools, for example, counselors who targeted parents saw the most success in boosting attendance.
"We know kindergarteners aren't getting themselves out of bed for school," Fried said. The counselors added that involving parents in middle school worked, as well. Sending home newsletters, offering attendance awards, or simply talking to parents and addressing challenges can all add to parent buy-in.
When there was no budget for student interventions, schools got creative, like creating a poster contest about attending school.
"That doesn't cost, you just go to a room, grab some materials, and have fun," said Price.
High school students were the hardest bunch to get on board, Price and Fried agreed. Counselors in high school saw success by encouraging students to join school clubs, which then motivated them to come to school. "They were making an effort as a school to push that sense of belonging," Price said.
Price and Fried pointed to three challenges leaders should be prepared to address when launching a districtwide initiative to increase school attendance:
- Attain counselor buy-in. Leaders can make counselor caseloads small and manageable. Albuquerque, for example, only required each counselor to take on 10 students per year to target for attendance interventions.
- Collect data. Track and organize student attendance data through shared documents so counselors can input and keep tabs on their own data. Data sheets could track student ID numbers, number of absent days, and percentages of absences. End-of-year data can then be used to identify students for interventions the next school year.
- Target the right students. Counselors should focus on a mix of students, rather than only students who have had a large number of absences. Counselors may not want to prioritize students who have absences for explained reasons, such as a medical condition.
Attendance interventions may change with students' circumstances, said Price and Fried.
"What we don't want to do is keep doing things that aren't successful," Fried added. "With attendance, it's a moving target constantly.”