Courtesy: Green Dot Public Schools California

By this time in the school year, the daily routines and normal flow of the school day are largely set. Students zigzag through the hallways between classes, lunch spots have been staked out and teachers have learned the personalities of their students and the dynamics of their different classes.

But across our 18 Green Dot Public School California campuses, something is missing. To be more precise: Someones are missing. And I know we are not alone.

As in nearly every district across the country, Green Dot continues to experience a lingering spike in chronic absenteeism. Across the state in 2021-22, 30% of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10% of school. That was more than double the rate in 2020-21 and almost three times the rate in the years before the Covid pandemic, according to the California Department of Education.

At Green Dot, our experience has largely mirrored this statewide rise. Before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism across our middle and high schools hovered around 13%, roughly in line with rates at Los Angeles Unified and about half that of Los Angeles County as a whole. In 2020-21, it jumped to 20% and then in 2021-22 climbed alarmingly to 37%.

I hesitate to call this a crisis when so many issues — the climate, the economy, mental health and learning loss since Covid, among others — are so dire. But we know chronic absenteeism is one of the loudest and clearest indicators that there are factors inhibiting a student’s learning and engagement with school.

And we know if we are going to help our students accelerate their learning following the pandemic and provide them the emotional and wellness supports they desperately need, they have to be at school.

The question becomes: How do we identify students who are at risk of becoming, or already are, chronically absent and remove barriers to their attending school? At Green Dot, the essential resource that enabled us to answer the first part of that question is: data.

Back in 2019, before the pandemic upended all lives, we established an organization-wide data report to track chronic absenteeism in real time. Looking at five years of historical data, we learned, for instance, that the disparity in attendance between our Black students and their peers — which is very similar to the differences seen across California — begins during the first month of school and then persists through the rest of the school year. And research long has shown that absenteeism during that first month typically predicts poor attendance throughout the year.

The data made it clear that we needed to do something specific to support our Black students who were most disproportionately impacted by chronic absence. The good news is that doubling down on an existing priority, strengthening our Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) would help us to fortify our approach.

We started with two strategic focus areas: data and communication. We then began to build our multi-tiered system of support with the majority of efforts going to universal support, so all students would benefit. This included a robust data report and analysis routine to help us identify who was at risk of or already chronically absent. It also included specific communication strategies, like “red flag day” text messages to all our families ahead of the 10 most-missed days of school. Additional support included “nudge” letters and text messages from a partner with expertise in behavioral science.

Then we explored what we could do to more intensively support our Black students whose data showed that something different was needed. We started by bringing the issue to the attention of our school leaders and  the African American Achievement team and began to more strategically use our attendance case managers — a position we started during the pandemic when rates started to rise drastically. We tasked case managers with focusing on closing gaps between Black students and their non-Black peers on campuses where those gaps were the largest.

We also piloted “targeted summer outreach,” with our attendance case managers making personal phone calls to Black students who were chronically absent the previous school year, reminding them about the first day of school and proactively identifying and helping to solve any barriers to attendance.

The result? Eighty percent of those we reached were at school on the first day — a promising sign as these were all students most likely to be chronically absent. This shows that early, intensified intervention is effective in reducing chronic absenteeism.

Now, we certainly haven’t solved chronic absenteeism at Green Dot. But we have made a dent, and our path forward is clear — one we can track and monitor thanks to our ongoing chronic absenteeism data collection. Most important, we’ve put in place the identification and early warning systems needed to combat this critical issue.

And others can do the same.

With attendance data — data we gather on every student, every day — there are things any school community can do:

  • Establish a system to get real-time attendance data in your hands whenever you need it.
  • Develop a routine for monitoring that data.
  • Put strategies and supports in the hands of school-level staff to respond in a way that honors the knowledge and relationships they have with their school communities.

With those things in place, the work of understanding the needs of students and families and removing barriers to attendance can really begin.


Leilani Abulon is chief programs officer for Green Dot Public Schools California. She began her career with Green Dot as a founding teacher at Animo Inglewood Charter High School and served as an area superintendent.

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  1. Jim 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding this but the author seems to be declaring success based on a single day? “Eighty percent of those we reached were at school on the first day.” What about day two?