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Addressing Chronic Absence in Salt Lake City

West | October 01, 2018

The United Way of Salt Lake (UWSL) facilitates a cross-sector collective impact initiative that aims to improve academic outcomes for all students and ultimately increase economic and health outcomes for families in the region. By forming the Salt Lake Collective Impact Partnership, REL West is working to build the capacity of both the UWSL and their participating initiative organizations to use data and evidence to accelerate progress toward these goals.

To learn more about the Chronic Absence Network and other ways that REL West is supporting the United Way of Salt Lake, visit the Salt Lake Collective Impact Partnership page.

As part of this partnership, REL West is helping UWSL build a Chronic Absence Network (CAN) of regional cross-sector partners. The purpose of the CAN is to collaboratively examine student absenteeism, generate ideas for improving attendance among at-risk student groups, and share what they’re learning through small-scale testing of interventions. REL West is supporting CAN members by providing data visualization tools to identify trends in absence among student groups and support data collection as sites try out new ideas to tailor interventions to support chronically absent students.

The CAN currently comprises six school districts, along with several policy, advocacy, and community partners. Together, these members serve almost a third of Utah’s K–12 students.

REL West recently interviewed one of the CAN’s early participants, Jennifer Newell of Salt Lake City School District, about this work. Listen to the audio interview below to learn about how Jennifer’s team is using data to understand why students miss school and to identify and support chronically absent students.

Audio Interview

Continue reading below to learn about how Jennifer and her team came to recognize the importance of shifting discussions on chronic absence from punitive to problem solving and how she is using her experience with addressing chronic absence at the district level to inform her work with the CAN.

A shift from blaming to engaging families

“We needed to dig deeper, we needed to ask deeper questions. I really wanted to find out what it was that was keeping kids from coming to school.”

When Jennifer began working as the attendance specialist for Salt Lake City School District, some of her first interactions with families were in district-level attendance conferences, where families would often face blame for their child’s absences, and little was done to help them address the problems behind why their child was missing school.

Applying research findings on supports for reducing student absences and her years of experience in the district’s Equity department, Jennifer transformed these meetings into opportunities to engage with families and learn about their struggles with regular attendance. She began inviting school staff and wraparound service providers to these meetings, with the goal of understanding each family’s challenges and identifying solutions to help these chronically absent students get to school more often.

“Once they've missed a few days, when they try to go back, they feel behind, sometimes they feel shamed by their teacher or their classmates… so, it’s just easier not to go anymore.”

Jennifer often found that students’ reasons for missing school were based on their relationships (or lack thereof) with peers or school staff and not feeling included in their school community. For example, some students who were missing a lot of school felt left out by their classmates or faced isolation and pressure in their classrooms as a result of missing important content, causing them to give up on attending altogether. Other factors uncovered through these meetings included family-related issues, such as being homeless, lacking transportation, or being responsible for taking care of younger siblings while parents are away at work.

Building a web of support

By re-imagining what could be accomplished through these attendance conferences, Jennifer was able to build a web of support for chronically absent students that could help create a more positive school experience, prevent them from landing in truancy court, and ultimately get them back on track academically. Now, families walk away from these meetings with action plans that go beyond just addressing standard attendance issues and might include connecting families to community resources such as a local food bank, Boys and Girls Club, or transportation vouchers. In these meetings, school-based staff may also commit to supporting students socially or helping them to manage their academic workload. Everyone leaves with an understanding that the school community cares about the student and his or her success.

The Chronic Absence Network

Although Jennifer and her Salt Lake City School District colleagues were already doing a lot to address chronic absenteeism, they joined the CAN to further examine student-level data and learn with and from other local school districts about effectively using data to improve supports for good attendance. As part of this work, Jennifer and her colleagues are now focused on finding ways to work more closely with schools in their district to identify and support chronically absent students. Jennifer recognizes that schools can engage in the same process that is being done at the district level — digging deeper into families’ particular situations in order to address a wide range of barriers to regular school attendance — and that they may even be better positioned than district staff to do so because they have prior relationships with students and their families.

“To me it is important to shift these conversations into the schools,” says Jennifer, “to be able to address those issues before kids have been absent so much that it really is hard to get caught up.”

Through the CAN, and with REL West’s support, schools and districts in the Salt Lake City region are examining a range of data and building their own webs of support for chronically absent students. Their examples of research-based strategies and lessons learned from local improvement cycles can also be used by other schools and districts that are interested in addressing chronic absence.


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