Using Community Coherence to Combat Chronic Absenteeism

When you hear “chronic absenteeism” relating to school attendance, your first thought is, “Yeah, someone needs to do something about that.” That’s one of the biggest barriers to finding workable solutions. This is “someone’s” problem, not everyone’s problem. And we get it. 

For students, being absent is often out of their control. The reasons are complex, varied, and usually unrelated to school itself— job requirements, transportation issues, health concerns, and other barriers or imperatives. This means solving absenteeism is, often, the least of their concerns. And for people without children, they often don’t see this as their issue to worry about at all. 

Fighting chronic absenteeism often gets delegated to those in the education industry: teachers and administrators with limited time and resources, schools and districts with limited funding and enforcement power. Even education associations are often limited to high-level discussions and task force meetings. Federal, state, and local governments can provide funding and prioritization on the issue but often need more resources to ensure progress.

A quick review: What is chronic absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is broadly defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in a school year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences. This can translate into missing 15 or more days per year or 3 days per month (nearly once a week). And it is a growing national crisis. 

As of last year, the estimated 8 million students who were chronically absent pre-pandemic had doubled to an estimated 16 million, or about 33 percent of students nationwide. This puts our nation’s schoolchildren at risk for falling behind academically and dropping out of school, as well as experiencing serious long-term health problems, employment challenges, and financial consequences.

Disproportionately at risk are children from low-income families and minority groups, homeless, or residing in public housing. Children with disabilities and those involved in the juvenile justice system are also disproportionally affected.

Helping students rebuild consistent attendance habits is an urgent priority for schools as absences surge and their communities. After all, our students’ success directly correlates to our future workforce’s success, impacting the availability of qualified workers, economic performance, and overall competitiveness of our communities and the country.

What are these root causes?

There are many: Food insecurity or hunger, unstable housing arrangements, unreliable transportation, job loss within the family, and lack of health insurance also contribute to chronic absenteeism.

Over the past few months, we’ve talked to our contacts in the education and workforce sectors about what they see as the biggest contributors to chronic absenteeism currently. Here are their top contenders:

  • Lack of community coherence 
  • Misalignment between curriculum and life skills
  • Disengaged family ecosystems
  • Uninspired students

What can a marketing and communications agency do to help resolve chronic absenteeism?

Great question. We and numerous other businesses and industries have a lot to contribute (and gain) by being part of the solution using our specific skillsets. 3fold specializes in developing outreach strategies and behavior change campaigns relating to workforce development, healthcare access, and public sector engagement.

As part of these strategies, the most effective approach is consistent: solve for the root causes of the issue, not the symptoms.

Where do marketing and communications contribute to this effort? Let’s look at the priority contributors of chronic absenteeism, as identified by our experts.

Building Community Coherence and Inspiring Students

Education isn’t a box, it’s a bridge. Continuing down the path of unresolved absenteeism creates consequences that stretch well beyond a school or a student’s home. They cross into everything that makes up a community: its economy, culture, and hope for the future. 

We need to strengthen the connections between communities—their residents, businesses, industries, nonprofits, healthcare providers, cultural institutions, and more—with their schools. And we must design these connections as opportunities to be excited about and celebrated. 

  • What can this look like using a marketing lens? New community partnerships, innovative curriculum, hands-on experiences, field trips, special events, attendance incentives and awards, and much more.
  • What can this do? Our communities’ approaches to education become something to celebrate, not endure. Students gain access to diverse learning avenues, teachers are fueled by motivation and optimism, and attendance rates surge. 

The very essence of community coherence is about creating an overlapping and intertwined variety of positive experiences. Most importantly, it’s about belonging. Engaging children in their communities engages them in their education journeys, builds long-term connections to civic life, and instills a belief in the possibilities of their futures.

Removing Misalignment and Re-engaging Families

We all remember sitting in Geometry, asking ourselves, “What does this have to do with real life?” Too often, today’s students ask this question about their entire educational journeys.

One North Carolina student demonstrated this perfectly, asking, “Why do we have to dedicate our high school lives to study equations we’ll never use? Why do exams focusing on pointless topics determine our entire future?” 

The conventional curriculum often needs to catch up regarding real-world relevance. We need to connect the curriculum to the real world better. This doesn’t necessarily mean tossing everything out and starting over—we’re not educators and wouldn’t pretend to know the intricacies of how the curriculum is developed and why. We mean finding the existing elements in the curriculum that demonstrate real-world applicability and opportunity and building storytelling and experiences to highlight them.

  • What can this look like using a marketing lens? Workforce development partnerships, earned media, family workshops, digital and offline content, videos and podcasts, curriculum sponsorships, etc.
  • What can this do? The investment in going to school regularly begins when education aligns seamlessly with the community’s needs. This alignment infuses purpose into learning, sparking improved attendance and a drive to engage in a world beyond their front doors.

Aligning curriculum to life skills in tangible, understandable ways builds motivation. Motivation is a key catalyst for school attendance. Family engagement in this storytelling is also key, particularly for students from the previously mentioned at-risk groups. Schools that place family involvement at their core witness a remarkable shift.

If we all participate in the solution, this is a solvable issue.

We understand that the roots of chronic absenteeism extend beyond the classroom walls—it begins at the community level.

The lack of community coherence cripples the motivation of teachers and students. Yet, we believe in fostering community involvement that infuses optimism and learning opportunities, igniting a fire of engagement that transcends confinement.

Through community-based initiatives, we can break the chains that restrict education to the classroom. By involving the community, we can guide young people to envision a world beyond textbooks and tests—a world teeming with possibilities for growth, learning, and opportunity.

By strengthening the threads of community involvement and family engagement, we can weave a diverse tapestry that empowers our students with a sense of belonging and a belief in their futures beyond school. It builds civic responsibility, an understanding that their voices matter, that they have exceptional value within their communities, and that their choices can better shape the world around them.

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