How Urban and Rural School Districts Aim to Solve Alarmingly High Absentee Rates

When you’re not sure where you’ll sleep, showing up to class isn’t what you’re worried about.

For educators, this makes for a daunting test.

“When families are dealing with not having basic necessities, school just isn’t a priority,” says Susanne Terry, coordinator for homeless education services in the San Diego County Office of Education. It’s worse for students who move around a lot, she says. They fall furthest behind.

Like in other major metro areas, privation exists alongside wealth in the Pacific coast city famous for its great weather and golden beaches. In San Diego, by some estimates the most expensive area in the entire country and a common vacation destination, about one-tenth of people live in poverty, according to a report from a grantmaker, the San Diego Foundation, published in late October. That’s 86,000 children experiencing poverty.

For students struggling to simply show up for school, this can translate to poor access to the basics. Housing is not always available, let alone stable access to food, a ride to and from school and the other conditions that have to be met for a student to really sink into learning, like internet access and a dedicated space for homework.

The absentee rates in San Diego — where, in 2021-2022, 30.4 percent of students were chronically absent, meaning they have missed at least 10 percent of school — are comparable to other large California cities. For homeless students, that rate is typically higher.

And the challenges are front of mind for many educators in the area, Terry says.

So how are they responding?

Attempting the Long Jump

Some districts say they’ve really tried to make lowering the rates at which homeless students miss school a priority.

Poway Unified School District, located in San Diego with more than 35,000 students, has a 15.7 percent chronic absentee rate, according to data from California’s Department of Education.

The district has truly made a concerted effort to make sure students are coming to school, says Mercedes Hubschmitt, director of learning support services and homeless liaison for the district.

Chronic absenteeism is not caused by the same problem for everybody, she says. It’s specific. So solving it requires the district to be mindful of students’ actual needs and to carefully plan steps to solve whatever hurdles those students face, she says.

How? Poway runs attendance reports and investigates why students aren’t showing up. District staff make “home visits,” sitting down with families to figure out what obstacles they have. What they’ve learned, Hubschmitt says, is that homeless students are missing the things that most people take for granted. The most common problem? It’s the physical part of getting kids to class. So the district attends to bus routes, gives out cards that provide free use of public transportation and, in some cases, provides gas reimbursement for families. Leaders are also working with companies like HopSkipDrive, a ridesharing company that gets students to school.

But Poway is also trying many similar approaches as other districts in San Diego. There are programs that provide limited time in hotels to stabilize housing. There are also attempts to get students access to clean clothes — for example, through access to laundry machines.

Other districts in San Diego tell EdSurge they are increasing training in trauma-informed care, providing more tutoring for homeless students, and focusing on college and career planning and guidance — sometimes including field trips to university campuses.

The hope is that these solutions will help cover the unique challenges faced by homeless students.

“Post-COVID, I think all of us went through different things. And I think that there are things that may have bubbled up that didn’t exist before, around health, around priorities, around access. And so our team is really focused on trying to ensure that our kids have what they need to be successful,” Hubschmitt, of Poway, says.

Another stumbling block: health care.

Disparities in who has access to health care are cited in reports like the one by the San Diego Foundation as a reason why white people in the city live on average five years longer than Black people.

For homeless students, this can mean there’s more untreated sickness in the family.

Poway has tried to adapt. The district uses a grant to give out Uber gift cards that students’ families use for rides to doctor’s appointments, Hubschmitt says.

Think Small

For rural areas, the situation looks different.

Kellie Burns, district executive officer for Yavapai Accommodation School District #99, finds that her staff is able to connect with students personally.
Hers is a small district, in central Arizona, with only 90 students. The dozen staff in the district hand out their personal phone numbers to students and give them rides to school. When those students are missing, the staff calls and texts them, even showing up to their houses. Sometimes, Burns says, staff even track students down at their jobs.

The extra effort forges one-to-one connections with the students, Burns argues. It’s those relationships that can keep students trudging through the doors when they don’t want to, according to attendance experts. But it’s something that probably isn’t practical for large urban districts, Burns acknowledges.

During the pandemic, the number of chronically absent unhoused students in Burns’ district shot up. It was more than 50 percent in 2020. But it’s tapered off: Now, it’s only “slightly higher” than it was pre-pandemic, Burns says.
By percentage, the number of chronically absent students in Yavapai actually sits near the official figures of urban areas like San Diego. The chronic absentee rate for Yavapai has been 31.9 percent so far this year, according to figures sent to EdSurge in November.

But while the number of homeless students in the district has risen, only about 9 percent are chronically absent, Burns reports.

And others in rural areas have noticed a similar pattern.

Fewer homeless students are chronically absent in rural areas because it’s harder for them to hide, says Tina Goar, senior education specialist of rural initiatives for Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit that partners with schools to create “healthy school ecosystems.”

Rural areas tend to have fewer students overall, and that allows for the districts to really know the homeless students, she says, reflecting specifically on her own experience with rural Colorado schools.

What the rural districts she’s familiar with have a harder time doing is providing social services.

Rural areas rely on connections with big cities and towns to fund social support. When it comes to finding social workers, housing aid or job training, Goar says, “It’s challenging.” And that’s what the schools Goar works with say they want, as much as specific solutions to chronic absenteeism.

Playing Catch-Up

Yavapai, the district Burns works in, is an alternative school. It also only works with high schoolers, most of whom have lagged seriously behind in credits for graduation, usually by more than a year, Burns says.

These students also tend to have had trouble with the law, be caregivers, or have physical, emotional or mental issues they are dealing with, she adds. So they often aren’t very interested in school.

About 75 percent of the students who dropped out during the pandemic aged out of the system and never returned to school, Burns says.

When the pandemic hit, Burns says, most of those students got full-time jobs working in fast food, construction or landscaping. To the students, it can seem like good money, which makes them more reluctant to abandon those jobs to return to school, Burns says. These students tend not to come back for their diploma or GED.

But some other students are lured back.

They face another challenge, Burns says: They often don’t have the foundation they need to succeed in higher grades. They’ve missed a lot of class time. So even though they moved up, they now have to deal with the frustration of that missed learning. This can cause depression or defiance. Burns says she spends a lot of her time trying to catch these students up to where they would be if they had stayed in school.

“If they are told ‘you’re not a failure just because you’re behind,’ they have been more likely to try and to focus more on their school,” Burns says. But ultimately, it can depend on the support system the student has at home.

Are they permanently behind? Burns is optimistic. “They can all catch up. We’ll get them there,” she says. It helps that Arizona doesn’t age out a student from school until 22, she adds. That can buy more time.

Burns says that showing compassion for these students and making a connection with them is critical. She tells them: “You’ve got extra time to do this. You’re not a failure, just because you graduated later than what you thought you were going to graduate when you entered kindergarten.”

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