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A Conversation with Attendance Expert Hedy Chang on Whole School Supports

Kristen Diamond February 10, 2022

While the pandemic caused a dramatic increase in chronic absence, it has also provided some invaluable learnings on how to move forward in a way that supports all students’ success.

On Feb. 3, Hedy Chang, Founder and Executive Director of Attendance Works, sat down with AllHere’s Phillip Shaver, Vice President of Education, Impact, and Community, for an EdWeek
webinar titled “Shifting the Landscape of K-12 Attendance and Engagement.” They discussed how a combination of people power and technology can help restore whole school support
systems and strengthen student and family engagement to tackle contemporary attendance challenges.

The starting point
Some districts have seen chronic absenteeism double or triple since 2020. The current high levels of chronic absence indicate these positive conditions for learning are missing for many students:
-Physical and emotional health and safety
-Belonging, connection, and support
-Academic challenge and engagement
-Adult and student well-being and emotional competence

“When the above are missing, that’s when you see high levels of chronic absence,” Chang said. “The key to putting these positive conditions back in place is a tiered support approach.” Under tier 1 (universal prevention), tier 2 (early intervention), and tier 3 (intensive intervention), in this model there’s a fourth tier of foundational whole school supports.

These foundational whole school supports build engagement. They’re not about attendance per se, but when they’re missing, attendance is challenged, especially during COVID.

“A lot of these building blocks aren’t in place or have been eroded, and that’s where we need to deepen [our work],” Chang said. “It’s not about case management with a few, it’s about putting back in place these core foundational building blocks. We can focus on learning, but we need to make sure these things are in place so kids are in a mental space to be learning. All schools can focus on this,” she added.

One district’s initial approach to whole school supports
Back in 2016, Broward County Public Schools in Florida organized its first attendance symposium for members of the community. In total, more than 1,200 people attended this capstone to Attendance Awareness Month, which laid the foundational supports for Broward’s attendance program.

“What I thought was impressive about this inaugural symposium is that it did a couple things,” said Chang, who was the keynote speaker at the event. “It drew upon local practices to highlight that this is possible locally, it made sure everyone had their data so they could see what their real attendance was, and it was intentionally designed to launch a sustained initiative.”

Broward County went on to use data to influence policy makers in amending existing rules that exacerbated inequities, incorporating district-wide messaging, and revising attendance plans through a district school improvement committee.

Shaver was an attendance coordinator in the district when COVID hit. “Initially in Broward, we observed improved rates of excused absences in all school types and by race,” he said. “Awareness, changes in practice, and updated policies were contributing factors to these improvements.

Fortunately, Broward’s years of broadening foundational support prior to COVID helped mitigate some of the pandemic impacts on attendance. Although chronic absenteeism increased, Broward was in a stronger position to shift its focus and take steps like connecting families with technology and providing meals from its schools.

Shifting to relational engagement
As Broward’s example shows, making the shift from transactional to relational engagement is necessary now more than ever. The three key areas in which to do this are:

-Smart two-way texting: “Using artificial intelligence, our engineers can program a chatbot that answers parent questions in seconds by text without downloading an app,” Shaver explained. “Parents are asking for help with technology, passwords, health protocols, mask protocols, calendar questions, whether school is closed, etc. For a family experiencing a crisis for the first time, these messages appear at the right time to ask for help. Instead of absences adding up, the chatbot can deliver information about school resources to those families and send a referral to the school for help.”
-Social-emotional learning strategies in the classroom: SEL is growing from a state and district mandate to a more widely embraced strategy that builds community in the classroom and helps create an environment for learning.
-Up-to-date school websites: “Keeping school websites up to date is more important now than before COVID,” Shaver said. “Parents want it to be easy to find and understand the protocols around masks and what to do around COVID, how to register kids for kindergarten, where to find magnet programs, and how to handle a family emergency that’s going to keep their child out of school for a few days.”

Moving ahead with research-backed innovations
“The communications we deliver through AllHere are based on research and experience to increase engagement, student attendance, and academic outcomes,” Shaver said. “During the pandemic, we’re using the same research to maintain relationships with parents.”

The chatbot is programmed to deliver messages that express empathy and appreciation so parents feel comfortable staying connected and asking for help when they need it. Best of all, these messages are managed and dispersed at the district level, saving educators time and added work.

Foundational whole school support is imperative to improving attendance—but it takes time. When a chatbot is added to the communication channels, districts can see system-wide attendance improvement in as little as two months. 

The full webinar is now available on demand here.

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