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Superintendent's News

Posted: September 15, 2023

Tackling Chronic Absenteeism

In his weekly message, Superintendent Scott Elder discusses the district’s efforts to curb chronic absences and the progress being made.

The State Fair is underway, and we’ve had a beautiful spell of cool weather this week. I look forward to this time of year in New Mexico every year. Happy Friday everyone!

Before we break for the weekend, I want to address an issue school districts across the country have been grappling with since the pandemic: chronic absenteeism. We consider a child chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of the days enrolled in school.

I know it’s a big problem throughout the U.S. because I hear colleagues discussing it.

The New York Times has been exploring the issue. In a newsletter earlier this month, David Leonhardt noted that long school closures spawned by the pandemic changed the way many students and parents think about school.

“Attendance, in short, has come to feel more optional than it once did, and absenteeism has soared, remaining high even as Covid has stopped dominating everyday life,” he wrote.

Districts across the U.S. are doing everything they can to reverse that trend. It’s a critical issue because persistent absences lead to students falling behind, and those are setbacks we can’t afford if we’re going to succeed in improving outcomes for all of our students.

What is our district doing to overcome this obstacle?

We’re tracking absences closely and notifying parents and guardians anytime their child has missed school. We’ve created school attendance teams. These teams are meeting with students and doing their best to find out what is causing the chronic absences. They’re also reaching out to parents, letting them know that we want to work with them to address whatever issue they’re experiencing. We contact parents when absences hit the 5%, 10%, or 20% thresholds, and we do our best to find a solution to the family’s problem. 

We often hear from parents who question why they’re getting these letters given that their child’s absences were for medical appointments or other reasons and were excused. State law requires us to track all absences, including those that are excused, and to notify parents when absences reach certain thresholds. The law is in place to ensure a parent is aware that the amount of school their child is missing creates a risk that the student may fall behind.

We’ve had our full attendance teams for a few years. Our schools are becoming more adept at using them, and we’re getting better at the interventions we can suggest and provide. There will be barriers we can’t overcome such as illness, but in instances where we can remove a barrier that’s getting in the way of a child showing up to school, we are working hard to do it.

Our efforts seem to be paying off.

About 43% of our students were chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year. A year later, during the 2022-2023 school year, that number was down to 34.1%, which, to be clear, is still too high, but a significant improvement. For comparison’s sake, our chronic absenteeism rate in 2018-2019 – the year before the pandemic hit – was 23.5%.

So how are we doing so far this year? As of our 20th day, our chronic absenteeism rate was 27%, an improvement over where we were at the same time last year and the year before, 33% and 34%.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing from principals that students this year were much more ready for school and aware of the expectation that they must be in school every day. We still have a lot of work ahead of us in our efforts to address chronic absenteeism, but we’re headed in the right direction.

Those of you interacting with students on a daily basis, please make them feel welcome and continue to encourage them to come to school every day. If you begin to notice a problem, talk to the kid or make sure that our counselors are aware of the situation. Let’s do everything we can to help our students be in class every day ready to learn.