Detroit Schools’ Multilayered Effort to Reduce Absenteeism

After missing four days of classes last fall at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, Jay’Sean Hull was called into the cafeteria with 100 other students with similar attendance records, according to a report inChalkbeat Detroit.

The group was introduced to attendance agent Effie Harris, a key figure in the school’s efforts to improve on a dismal statistic. The previous school year, 82 percent of students in the northwest Detroit school werechronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more days.

Harris explained that the students had been selected for a relatively new program pairing students at risk of becoming chronically absent with 20 adult mentors in the building.

Jay’Sean’s mentor: Harris herself. Over the next few weeks, she would greet the sixth-grader at a side entrance designated for middle schoolers, visit him in his classrooms on days that he arrived late, and regularly check in with his family.

This high-touch, relationship-based investment was part of a multipronged approach at Gompers last school year to tackle a problem with tragic consequences:Chronically absent studentsare more likely to becomedisengaged from schoolandmore likely to drop out, research shows.

Gompers Principal Akeya Murphy, a veteran educator, tapped just about every staff member to help with the effort. Along with the mentorship program, the school dispatched staff to students’ homes to help families solve problems contributing to absenteeism, used data to track attendance patterns, and offered incentives ranging from field trips to the local movie theater for students to grocery store gift cards for parents.

Murphy, Harris, and other leaders at Gompers set an ambitious goal for last school year: to shave 20 percentage points off the school’s chronic absenteeism rate.

When Murphy became principal at Gompers at the start of 2022-23, she made sure to move the attendance agent’s office into the main office, a decision she hoped would amplify the importance of student attendance to families as they walked into the building.

Harris spends a portion of her days reaching out by phone and in person to parents and caregivers, trying to help them make plans to get their kids to class. It can be difficult, she said, stressing to families how two absences a month can quickly add up to a student being chronically absent.

The conference room at Gompers is testament to the school leaders’ determination to make a dent in absenteeism. On all four walls are dozens of easel paper sheets, with handwriting in bright pink, green and orange marker. Each sheet details strategies Gompers staff have employed to try to make kids come to school every day.

Field trips to the local movie theater and bowling alley. Gas and grocery store gift cards for parents. Arts and crafts activities in the gymnasium. A mobile video game truck. “Gator Bucks,” named after the school’s mascot, for students who complete classroom assignments and exhibit positive behavior.

“These are the kinds of things that we’re discussing, constantly thinking and trying to be innovative about,” Murphy said. “How can we entice kids and make sure that families are consistently bringing their children to school?”

While incentives are a significant part of Murphy’s vision to encourage student attendance, relationship building remains the core tenet of the school’s efforts.

“Children need to know that you care for them, that they’re in a safe space, that they have a trusted adult that they can communicate with and someone that is building a relationship with them, because that’s going to open the pathway for learning,” she said.

By the end of the year, the chronic absenteeism rate declined to 64 percent — just shy of the 20-point decline school officials were aiming for, but down significantly.

Encouraged by the progress last year, Gompers school staff plan to continue their strategies in the new school year that began this week.

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