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These Colorado school districts are testing out new ways to boost student attendance after record absences

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FORT MORGAN — When Rena Frasco was principal of Pioneer Elementary School in Fort Morgan several years ago, she spent many of her mornings on the porches of her students’ homes, popping up on their doorsteps to corral them to school on the days they didn’t show up to class.

The “principal on porch” program — or the “Pop” program, as Frasco called it — sent her and sometimes a partner from law enforcement directly into student homes to persuade them to get out of bed and head to school.

It wasn’t an ambush tactic so much as a way to make sure her young learners knew that someone cared about them and wanted to see them learning each day alongside their classmates.

“The first strategy always is about relationships,” said Frasco, now assistant superintendent of Morgan County School District RE-3. “You’re not going to get a kid to come to school if you’ve not built some sort of relational capacity with number one, the student, and number two, the family.”

Frasco no longer chases students from their bed to the classroom, but she’s helping the Fort Morgan school district test out new ways of encouraging kids who have inconsistent attendance to commit to a regular schedule of going to school. The rural district of more than 3,458 students, tucked in the wheat and alfalfa fields of the Eastern Plains, is part of a statewide group of districts turning their focus toward major challenges with chronic absenteeism that surfaced during the pandemic: During the last school year, more than 1 in 4 Colorado students — about 270,000 — missed more than 10% of school, according to figures from the Colorado Department of Education. That translated to 31% of Colorado public schools students being marked absent from school 10% or more of the school year.

Rates of chronic absenteeism were even worse during the 2021-22 school year, when a record 36% of students were chronically absent. Both of the past two school years marked a dramatic increase in the number of kids gone from classes on a regular basis compared with before the pandemic, when rates of chronic absenteeism ranged from 18% to 24%, according to state data.

State officials and 20 school districts have been meeting this year to learn from one another about approaches that have paid off in steering more students back on track. Part of the struggle has been tied to challenges of helping kids and parents move away from a mindset that emerged during the pandemic, when schools urged students to stay home when sick and when older students gained a new sense of independence through hybrid and remote learning, said Johann Liljengren, director of CDE’s Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement Office.

Those approaches to school created “patterns of nonattendance,” Liljengren said. Now, schools are shifting back into some of the norms that preceded the pandemic, including relaxing rules for when sick students must stay home, and families are taking time to readjust.

Educators and administrators discuss approaches to chronic absenteeism throughout school districts April 3, 2024, at the Morgan County School District offices in Fort Morgan. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Other drivers of student absences are much more complicated, Frasco said, and there is always an underlying reason behind it.

In Fort Morgan, which educates many Hispanic students and refugees, some students work nights, making it difficult to get to school on time in the morning.

“They want to learn English,” Frasco said, “but they also know they need to work for their families.”

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And many students are weighed down by mental health struggles. When those students don’t have an adult they can trust at school, she said, they find little incentive to keep attending.

The district hasn’t struggled with chronic absenteeism as much as some of its peers — attendance rates typically exceed 90%, Frasco said — but some of its students have skipped as many as 50 days.

“Every day that you miss, a lot of times you’re missing out on foundational skills, and skills build upon each other,” Frasco said, referring to that cycle as “the Swiss cheese effect.”

Educators and administrators discuss approaches to chronic absenteeism throughout school districts April 3, 2024, at the Morgan County School District offices in Fort Morgan. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“You have all these holes,” she said. “You have all these holes in your education, in your foundation. If you don’t have the strongest people trying to fill those gaps, then you just have those holes and it’s hard to fill in those holes after a certain time period.”

It’s equally hard for kids to find the drive to stay in school, Liljengren said. As kids fall behind or become disengaged in their classes, it often becomes more daunting for them to try to make up the lessons and time they’ve lost. That’s why the sooner educators can step in — long before a student decides to drop out — the more likely they are to keep kids connected to school, Liljengren said.

“There are very few kids who didn’t show warning signs before they left school,” he said. “Let’s not think of dropping out as a one-time event but as an accumulation of different events in a kid’s life, and so the earlier we can get at impacting that, the better.”

Coaxing kids to school takes a caring adult and a whole community

Six Colorado school districts determined to improve their attendance rates convened Wednesday at Morgan County School District for their fourth and last time, setting aside the morning to unpack the reasons that students avoid school and exchange ideas about ways to bring them back.

“Student attendance is one of the most critical issues educators are facing not only here in Colorado but across the country,” Colorado Education Commissioner Susana Cordova told educators at the convening through a video recording. “It’s going to take every one of us working together to turn around the trajectory of our state’s chronic absenteeism challenge.”

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