More than 1 in 4 Colorado students missed more than 10% of school during the last school year, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Colorado Department of Education.
The findings — which point to close to 270,000 students being chronically absent during the school year — are a worrisome trend for state education officials and teachers, particularly as students largely continue to trail behind in academic performance coming out of the height of the pandemic.
“It’s likely that this is going to have some pretty major, significant long-term impacts on kids and learning,” said Van Schoales, a senior policy director at the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center. “We’re just adding to the number of years that kids are not getting what they need. It’s a crisis.”
The rate of chronic absenteeism across Colorado schools last year was 31%. A student is marked chronically absent when they miss 10% or more of the school year, according to the state education department.
That rate is a step in the right direction from the 2021-22 school year, when a record 36% of students were chronically absent. Still, it far exceeds rates of chronic absenteeism before COVID-19, which ranged from 18% to 24%, according to state data.
And for kids who come to school with extra challenges, the numbers are particularly alarming: Sixty percent of kids who are homeless were chronically absent last year while 40% of students learning English missed at least 10% of the school year. Meanwhile, 39% of students with special needs were chronically absent along with 43% of students living in poverty (those who qualify for free and reduced price lunch) and 43% of migrant students, state data shows.
But there is at least one bright spot: Most of the state’s school districts had better attendance rates last year than during the 2021-22 school year, with 124 of Colorado’s 185 school districts improving in attendance.
“Every day a student is in school is an opportunity for them to learn, build relationships and access support,” Susana Córdova, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “We know districts are working hard to ensure students attend school regularly. But we need everyone, including educators, parents, students and community members, to make a renewed effort on this important matter.”
At the state level, the education department’s Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-Engagement takes the lead in tracking and tackling chronic absenteeism, in part by trying to better understand what strategies are most effective in keeping kids returning to classrooms every day.
Johann Liljengren, director of that office, acknowledges that the latest rate of chronic absenteeism remains really high but stressed that schools in many states are similarly struggling to get kids back into a routine of regularly showing up to school.
“We’re really seeing that as we continue to make progress and want to make more progress on the academic outcomes for our students, that we need kids connected to learning,” Liljengren said.
That needs to happen across grades but especially in the years that bookend a child’s education: The state education department reported that kindergarten along with 10th, 11th and 12th grades saw the highest rates of chronic absenteeism last year, with more than 35% of students in each grade flagged as chronically absent.
“(Kindergarten) is a hugely important grade for students in getting those patterns of attendance, patterns of learning, connections to school,” Liljengren said.
He suspects a variety of reasons behind students’ consistent absences, including continued illnesses — some stemming directly from COVID-19 — as well as high staff turnover in schools, which can make it hard for students to find a classroom rhythm when new teachers are repeatedly taking over their classes. Additionally, more Colorado schools and districts are seeing higher numbers of students who are chronically absent, forcing them to rethink how they approach attendance.
Meanwhile, the sharp shifts in how students learned during the pandemic are still impacting how they want to complete their classes today, Liljengren said, with some students more inclined to continue using online learning tools rather than attend school in person.
Schoales also sees the “lingering impacts” of the pandemic still getting in the way of kids’ education, with many students now used to not showing up for school without realizing the lifelong consequences that often follow.
“There’s a direct relationship between kids being in school and then reading and writing and doing math,” Schoales said. “And the more that they are, the more reading and writing and math they generally can do on average.”
He was surprised that the improvements to chronic absenteeism last year weren’t more significant, given how much attention that parents, teachers and the state has placed on steering kids back into the classroom coming out of the pandemic.
“What’s really depressing to me is that while things have improved,” Schoales said, “they haven’t improved that much.”
How are districts pulling kids back into school?
Relationships are one of the most powerful motivators in driving kids back to school, Schoales noted, with close ties between teachers, students and their families giving kids more of a reason to attend and be engaged in their schoolwork.
Those relationships are often strengthened by school staff and educators taking the time to connect with students and families, whether it’s by regular phone calls, mail or even home visits, he said.
But helping rein chronically absent students back into schools takes wildly different approaches at different grade levels, Liljengren said. For instance, high schoolers tend to be much more independent with their studies and actively opt out of school, he said. So when a student in high school stops attending classes regularly, it’s critical that sc areá hool staff ask questions like: Do they feel unsafe? Are they performing poorly in a course and don’t want to talk to their teacher? Do they not have access to reliable transportation?
Garfield County School District 16, on the Western Slope, is among the Colorado school districts where chronic absenteeism has only worsened. Last year, more than 41% of students in the district were chronically absent, up from more than 31% during the 2021-22 school year, according to state data.
The district, which had nearly 1,200 K-12 students last year, has tried all sorts of measures to improve student attendance, Superintendent Jennifer Baugh wrote in an email to The Colorado Sun. Those have included reinforcing to parents how important regular attendance is for students’ education and creating an after-school program for middle and high school students on the cusp of being chronically absent, during which they spend two hours making up schoolwork they missed.
The district also rewards high schoolers with daily points for attendance in each class, which can help them earn higher grades. And in elementary school grades, the district holds competitions by classroom for perfect or highest attendance, awarding students prizes and organizing special events.
Middle and high schoolers who have “excessive absences” on their record can be held back or forfeit course credit, Baugh wrote.
“The real issue is that we have no way to hold parents accountable for their students’ attendance,” she wrote. “Some parents are fine with letting their kids miss school for whatever reason. It’s a huge problem because this impacts student learning, but it also doesn’t teach students that showing up is 90% of what matters in most all other things in life. That will be a hard lesson to learn after high school and in the workforce where there are real consequences for absences.”
Durango School District 9-R has also prioritized efforts to overcome chronic absenteeism among students — which are showing some success. In the far western district, which educated 5,663 K-12 students last year, more than 30% of students were chronically absent, down from nearly 35% during the 2021-22 school year, according to state data.
Durango schools have held focus groups and interviewed students to better understand how to make progress with attendance, Vanessa Giddings, director of student support services, wrote in an email to The Colorado Sun.
The district also creates “personalized” plans for students who are lagging in attendance, helping them identify why they’re struggling to keep coming to school, Giddings wrote.
Additionally, parent/guardian school liaisons who are bilingual help facilitate communication between families and schools, and when students miss class, teachers try to take a more positive approach to working with them.
“When students are missing school,” Giddings wrote, “we tell our students that we missed seeing them, and they are an important part of our learning community.”