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Q&A With Hedy Chang of Attendance Works – Part 2

January 3, 2013 All Articles, Nonprofits and Communities Tags: , , , , , 0 Comments

Q&A With Hedy Change of Attendance Works – Part 2

In our last entry, we talked to Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance Works, an initiative aimed at improving outcomes for students by focusing on chronic absence. Hedy discussed the issues that frame education today, barriers to higher attendance rates and ways that schools can identify and address indicators of chronic absence, such as unreliable or unsafe transportation options.

To recap, chronic absence can lead to deficiencies in comprehension and proficiency in vital, early skills such as reading and math. Students with trouble reading at grade-level, by the third grade, are four times more likely to eventually drop out of school.

The following is the second half of our interview, where Hedy discusses the role and impact of great teachers, tools and tips for turning around “drop-out factories”, the importance of catching chronic absence early and the successes she’s encountered nationwide.

1. There’s been a lot of focus and a lot of studies lately on the impact of great teachers. But, can a highly advanced teacher make almost all the difference?  Is that the single most important factor when it comes to absence and attendance?   

Teachers make a tremendous difference because they help move the needle by motivating students to go to class and they also help to make sure that students aren’t avoiding going to school because they are bored or fearful of being bullied.  But teachers alone are not the solution, especially in communities where there are major barriers like poor transportation, unsafe paths to school or chronic disease.  In addition, large class sizes and increased demands on teachers mean that we need to help identify other partners – whether they are other school staff, afterschool providers or volunteer mentors who can help reach out to students and find out what is happening if they are chronically absent.

2. What do you think we should do about schools that have been called “drop-out factories,” where the attendance, test scores, and overall results are very poor? 

The first key to reducing chronic absence is finding out if it is a problem in the first place and identifying which students are most affected. Unfortunately, although teachers take roll every day, most schools currently do not know if they have a problem with chronic absence. Schools generally only focus on average daily attendance figures and track truancy when children miss school due to unexcused absences.

For example, even in a school of 200 students with 95% average daily attendance, 30% (or 60) of the students could be missing a month of school (i.e. chronically absent) over the course of the school year. It all depends whether absences are due to most students missing a few days or excessive absences among a small but still significant minority of students.  In addition, truancy overlooks students who may be missing too much school but their absences are excused.  Attendance Works offers free downloadable tools for tracking chronic absence in the elementary grades where it is most overlooked.  Districts can go to calculating chronic absence in the Tools and T.A. section of our web-site ( to find out more.

The key to reducing chronic absence is starting early. For drop-out factories, districts need to find out how much chronic absence might be contributing to the poor academic performance and then encourage the district to partner with families and community members to identify major barriers to attendance and how to address them.  Districts and other government agencies can use the data and the insights from schools and community members to determine how to best allocate resources to address barriers to getting to school.

They shouldn’t do this just for high school but also for middle and elementary school.  One of the reasons the high school issues seem so intractable is we didn’t nip the chronic absence problem in the bud when it first appeared.  We need to start monitoring chronic absence, starting in kindergarten, so we can turn around poor attendance before a student has missed so much school they require expensive remediation or have become a behavioral problem.

All schools also need to monitor chronic absence – starting in the first month of school and then reach out to students immediately to let them know they were missed and to see what would help them get back to school. If chronic absence is rampant, then all students are affected because the classroom churn can slow down the pace of instruction for everyone.

3. Can you give me an example or two of some successes you’ve seen within schools in increasing attendance and overall school performance? How did they achieve that?

As a part of our work, we make a practice of looking for positive outliers — schools that have lots of low-income students but have low levels of chronic absence.  When we visit, we almost always find a team in place, typically led by a strong principal, which is working together to nurture a culture of attendance, use data to reach out to students as early as possible and then work with families to identify and overcome barriers to getting to school.

In Providence, early outreach led to an elementary school finding out that students were missing school because their parents were working the night shift and falling asleep before they could get their children to school. The school put in place a before-school activity with breakfast to alleviate the situation and they engaged in extensive education among parents to help them understand why attendance in Kindergarten matters.

In Oakland at one middle school, the principal formed an attendance team that also included the school social worker, attendance clerk, nurse, and a community based agency that both helped with parent engagement and after-school programming.   The team met every two weeks to monitor their data and take action. They divided up the students with chronic absence and held each other accountable for checking in with them regularly, and generally made sure that school activities helped nurture a culture of attendance.  Over the course of a single year, they reduced chronic absence from 15 to 8% and significantly increased their test scores.

For more examples of schools that are making a difference across the country, visit What Works at You can also learn more about Hedy Change, Attendance Works and their research on chronic absence by visiting Hedy Chang was a presenter at nFocusCommunities for Change 2012. To view her presentation, visit

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