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Credit: David Walter Banks

Parent volunteer Maria Garcia helps a table of kindergartners with math exercises at Lexington Elementary School in Pomona.

In what scenario is it OK for an elementary school student to skip school?

a. She’s already doing well in school.
b. His good behavior has earned him a well-deserved day off.
c. Her mother is too tired to drive to school.
e. He’s spending quality time on a family vacation.

All of the above, according to a survey of California parents whose elementary schoolchildren missed more than 10 days of school in 2014-15. “Parents really undervalue the impact of absences in elementary school,” said Jill Habig, special assistant attorney general in Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office. “That is true across income levels.”

The attorney general is trying to change that.

In what may be a first for California education, Harris has formed a partnership with the Ad Council to bring Madison Avenue market research and communication strategy to the problem of chronic absenteeism, an early indicator of students at risk of dropping out. Roughly 230,000 California elementary school students – about one in 12 – in 2014-15 were chronically absent, defined as missing more than 10 percent of school for reasons that are excused, unexcused or the result of disciplinary suspension. Research has linked chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and 1st grade to difficulty reading in 3rd grade, and students who are not reading at grade level in 3rd grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school.

But a 5- or 6-year-old child looks to a parent or caregiver to make the rules governing when, how and why to go to school – and schools, under state and federal pressure to track and reduce excessive absenteeism, increasingly are trying to influence the rules parents are or are not setting. For strategic advice, Harris turned to the Ad Council, a New York-based nonprofit marketing agency known for launching iconic public service campaigns such as “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Its task, funded by The California Endowment, was to answer one question: “What’s the best way to talk to parents about absences in elementary school?”

The Ad Council last year surveyed more than 1,000 English- and Spanish-speaking parents, held home visits with 24 families from Northern, Central and Southern California, and interviewed seven educators and experts in the attendance field. All of the parents contacted had children attending a K-5 public school and lived in households that earn less than $50,000 a year. Children in lower-income families often face obstacles in getting to school, including being unable to obtain timely medical and dental care, and are more likely to be chronically absent, research has found.

“Parents really undervalue the impact of absences in elementary school,” said Jill Habig, special assistant attorney general.

Last week, Harris and the Ad Council released the results in research papers, email templates for teachers and other communication tools for schools. The message that seemed to most strongly motivate parents to think twice about nonmedical elementary school absences was that such absences reduce the odds of graduating from high school, the report said. Another high-impact message was that what students learn in pre-kindergarten and elementary grades builds a foundation that will be incomplete if too many days are missed.

“Parents know that attendance is important, yet rationalize absences,” states the Ad Council report on survey findings. The report noted “inconsistency” and “dissonance” as parents said they understood that absences could hurt their child’s academic performance but also said, “Absences do not matter as much in the early years,” and “Others in my child’s class miss as much school as my child.”

More than half the parents surveyed said it’s not “a big deal” for a kindergartner to miss school. They said they’d kept their children out of school for nonmedical reasons that included parent fatigue, family vacation, student is doing well at school, student doesn’t want to go to school and student has earned a day off as a reward.

Parents associated the student’s absences with the rewards that they or the child received – which researchers characterized as “enjoyment, harmony, rest, safety and convenience” – and not on the effect the absences would have on the child’s learning. Parents whose children were being bullied felt particularly strongly that they were keeping their child home to be safe, researchers found.

Researchers tested four statements about attendance to see which phrases struck parents as believable and motivating. “Attendance matters” was found to be the most convincing, followed by “absences add up,” and “too many absences now can lead to poor habits later.” The phrase “all absences are equal” wasn’t found to be particularly persuasive.

Messages aside, parents said that they would be most motivated to improve attendance if their child’s teacher talked with them about the consequences of absences. The more particular the messages are, the better, researchers found, so a teacher who said she hopes the student won’t miss tomorrow’s lesson on counting by 5’s is more effective than a generic “hope to see you in school” comment.

A full rollout of the communication tools for schools is expected before the annual Attendance Awareness month in September. “Districts are starting to see the connection between attendance and academic achievement,” Habig said. “When schools invest even a little bit in engaging parents more directly when students are starting to miss school – those small investments are really paying off.”

EdSource receives funding from The California Endowment but maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.


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  1. Sara Carter 7 months ago7 months ago

    Wait a minute.
    You’re saying a two-page email filled with long-winded and over-explanatory incoherent reasoning that maybe 10% of the audience understands — doesn’t work?

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