New Report Shares Opportunities North Carolinians See for Improving Regular School Attendance in the Early Years

Regular school attendance, starting in preschool, helps puts children on track for reading at grade-level in third grade, a critical benchmark and predictor of future academic and life success. Recognizing that, Governor Cooper and 60 NC school district superintendents (so far!) have proclaimed September 2019 as Attendance Awareness Month. A report released today by the NC Early Childhood Foundation shares preschool and elementary school administrator, teacher, staff and parent voices about their local attendance policies and practices. There are inspiring schools and communities all around the state taking action to reduce chronic absence every day.

AttendaNCe Counts: How Schools and Local Communities are Reducing Chronic Absence in North Carolina outlines results from a survey through EducationNC’s Reach NC Voices platform of 1,500 NC parents, preschool staff, elementary school staff and community providers. Respondents shared their impressions of their local attendance policies and practices, including around school environment, family engagement, communication, working with community partners, staff capacity, accuracy of attendance data and more. High-level survey findings include:

  • Respondents feel that their schools are welcoming and engaging and that they collect accurate attendance data.
  • They feel their schools need some support in encouraging attendance, engaging families, communicating about attendance policies, and ensuring staff capacity around chronic absence.
  • Respondents feel there is the most room for improvement in partnering with community agencies to improve attendance, using a school-based attendance team to track and respond to chronic absence, and ensuring that attendance strategies are reflected in school improvement plans.
  • A higher percentage of respondents from rural school districts report confidence in their schools’ policies and practices than from urban and suburban school districts. This may reflect more successful attendance policies and practices in rural districts, or it may reflect less of a concern with chronic absence in these districts. Research shows that chronic absence does happen in every district—nearly three out of every four NC school districts had from five to 15 percent of their elementary-school students chronically absent during the last data collection.

Based on the survey data, the report considers what schools and communities in NC can do to reduce chronic absence in preschool and the early grades. A few of the recommendations include:

  • Build on success with positive engagement to encourage attendance. Schools can build off their success in welcoming students and families and making them feel they belong by including supportive, proactive attendance messaging as part of their positive school climates.
  • Use data to improve attendance. School leaders can build on their success in collecting accurate attendance data by having a school-based attendance team analyze the data regularly and reach out to support families whose children are chronically absent.
  • Learn from families, early learning partners and other elementary schools.
    • Do a needs assessment with local families to better understand the barriers they face in getting children to school every day and what supports they need.
    • Reach out to early learning partners to better understand their approaches to reducing chronic absence. For example, Head Start has specific protocols in place to support and engage families and encourage regular attendance.
    • Request mentoring around addressing attendance from other elementary schools with similar populations but lower chronic absence rates.
  • Build accountability for regular school attendance. School leaders can lift up this issue and highlight it as a specific area of focus for improvement.
  • Encourage community support in reducing chronic absence. School leaders can invite community-based groups to engage with their schools around chronic absence. For schools that already have community-based groups engaged, principals can work to better understand their concerns about school policies and practices.

In addition to analyzing the survey data and making recommendations for action, the report shares bright spots of schools in NC that are already reducing chronic absence. For example, Selma Elementary School, a Title I school in Johnston County, has engaged the community in programs to support student attendance, invested in a social worker who supports students and their families in attending school every day, and uses a data manager to ensure the administration and social work team can target supports for the children and families facing the highest barriers to daily school attendance.

AttendaNCe Counts at the State, District and School/Community Levels

There are actionable strategies to support regular attendance at the state, district, and school and community levels. For the past three years, NCECF has focused attention on school attendance and chronic absence as a part of national Attendance Awareness Month in September. This 2019 focus on the school and community level is the third in a series of reports.

In addition, NCECF recently released the 2019 AttendaNCe Counts Toolkit, which equips schools and communities with useful resources to get the word out about the importance of regular school attendance and need to reduce chronic absence, starting when children are young and in preschool. The toolkit includes a fact sheet with data and research highlights, the Attendance Awareness Month Proclamation for superintendents to sign, and social media tools including images and suggested posts.

Why Does Chronic Absence Matter?

Chronic absence is defined in North Carolina as missing 10 percent of school days within one academic year for any reason (excused or unexcused). And it impacts student success. Consistent school attendance in the early grades boosts children’s academic learning, achievement, and motivation, while early chronic absence is associated with lower academic achievement, truancy in middle school, school dropout, delinquency, and substance abuse. A study of Chicago students found that multiple years of chronic absence in the early grades results in lower reading proficiency by third grade.

Chronic absence is a complex issue, since the causes can vary from poverty to health issues to parent understanding of the importance of being in school every day. Regular attendance is also an equity issue. Children who are living with economic disadvantage are both more likely to be chronically absent in the early grades – due to barriers like chronic health conditions, lack of transportation and food insecurity – and less likely to have access to the needed resources to make up for missed time in school.

Visit the Regular School Attendance page on the NCECF website to learn more about chronic absence and attendance in NC and what you can do to help ensure our youngest children are present and ready to learn at school every day. If you are a school district superintendent who would like to proclaim September as Attendance Awareness Month in your district, please contact Lisa Finaldi at