Social Emotional Solutions: April 2023

April 25, 2023

Social Emotional Solutions: A monthly blog post series showcasing strategies and bright spots for Colorado’s schools

Academic Recovery: Building Systems to Catch Kids Up

By Finessa Ferrell, CEI Social Emotional Learning Specialist  

Re-Imagining the Problem

Let’s talk frankly about attendance. Educators are insistent that student attendance has never been worse, and the data confirms this. In the 2018-19 school year, 197,000 Colorado students were chronically absent, meaning four absences in one month or ten absences in one year, regardless of whether they are “excused” or “unexcused.” In 2022, that number was nearly 320,000, an increase of 38 percent.

When kids don’t come to school regularly, it places incredible stress on the system as well as every educator in it and it’s not a new problem. After decades of evaluating attendance promotion and truancy reduction programs, we have learned that several strategies can get kids back in school buildings and classrooms. This, however, is an incomplete solution.

If getting bodies into buildings was the problem to solve, we might have had some reasonable success solving it, particularly before the pandemic when we could find them. But that “success” also illuminated an oversimplification, namely that kids who missed a lot of school just need to be present to become more successful students. While it is true that if you are not in class to benefit from direct instruction you are almost certainly not going to be successful, it is not true that just being there will lead to success. In fact, when chronically absent students return to school — whatever the circumstance, program, or strategy that recaptured them — they often don’t do better academically, nor do they stay. Intuitively, we know why even if we don’t always want to name it.

When students return to school, they have missed a lot of direct instruction. While some students might have had prolonged absence only in the current school year, we know that a great many students have had patterns of absence going back several years. As this deficit of skill and knowledge gets larger, the student’s ability and desire to “catch up” to their peers dwindles. Imagine it as a huge hole in the ground with the student at the bottom looking upward. Perhaps they dug the hole themselves, making one poor and unsupported choice after another, likely in response to a school where they felt a low sense of belonging and attachment. Perhaps trauma, illness, family emergencies, personal conflicts with a teacher, bullying or homelessness helped dig the hole. To the extent that these factors will continue to be obstacles to engagement, it is important to identify this through an inclusive student-centered inquiry process so that they can be addressed.

From the perspective of a student who decided today — for whatever reason — to return to school after a pattern of absence, the decision to return makes much less sense by the end of the week, if not the end of the day. They don’t know what is going on in class, which feels terrible. They worry that they might be called on in class or be assigned to a group project where it is obvious that they can’t do the work and that is embarrassing. They might have been given a packet or list of missed assignments and a deadline to finish them for partial or full credit. Setting aside whether they have the literal time or the time management skills to complete that mountain of make-up work by the deadline, how will they complete it if they missed the direct instruction that prepared their peers to do it? This is, again, a place where we might not name what we intuitively know: re-teaching is the only move that makes sense.

Families with resources might engage a private tutoring provider to support their student who has fallen behind but families without these resources, or a student who is still unconvinced that re-engaging in school is going to lead to a better outcome, will not. Either way, the adolescent who comes back to school and concludes that there is no way they can make it work because they are too far behind is going to leave; younger students may develop stomach aches, rashes, anxiety, and other symptoms of psychological avoidance until they have more autonomy to ditch. Administrators are left wondering how to accomplish re-teaching at scale within a system not designed for students to leave and come back. Teachers are left feeling resentful that an expectation for significant re-teaching is even being considered when they are not to blame for the student being absent and their schedule and role isn’t designed to address this.

Developing a System for Catching Kids Up

A recent conversation with a high school principal suggested that a full 20 percent of her 1,100 students need intensive re-teaching and neither attending their regular classes nor separate credit recovery intervention are working. What might work for a few students needing academic recovery is just not possible at the kind of scale her school is experiencing. What is needed is something different, something systemic and built into how schools operate, not an ad-hoc and often inequitable approach to individual absences.

Five Steps to Developing a Catch-Up System:

1. Take the stigma out of catching up.
The foundational step is to make “catching up” something that is expected, common, and that everyone can access regardless of the reasons catching up is needed. Make sure students feel welcome and treat catching up as a something to “figure out together,” that assessing where they are is just the way to get them the right level of help and that getting caught up, passing classes, and getting good grades is absolutely possible with the assistance you are warmly and enthusiastically offering.

2. Radically expand tutoring and re-teaching supports
Because re-teaching is the only move that makes sense, offering this without expecting your teaching staff to do it — particularly at scale — is the challenge. Whether home-grown, leveraging technology and flipped classrooms, or by partnering with existing community partners, find the dollars to build a robust school-connected tutoring network that can meet students at their school or home, a library, rec center, park, or any other place that makes sense for the student and their family.

3. Redesign grading and assessment
While it may seem like a type of educational blasphemy, pivot away from the mountain of make-up assignments to replace zeros in the grade book and opt, instead, for alternative ways for students to show proficiency toward the standard. Do not settle for less; expect the student to demonstrate their knowledge and skill but collaborate with teachers to determine what that demonstration can look like.

4. Dramatically strengthen the home-school connection
An effective catch-up system will require warm and authentic partnership with families/caregivers of the student catching up. Consider family connection visits — a renaming of “home visits”— to remove the baggage that often comes with that term. Family connection visits can and should happen anywhere the family feels comfortable meeting and the focus should be how to partner together to create a seamless web of support for their child to meet clear academic growth targets. The conversation should be warm, helpful, and hopeful. The power of this strategy cannot be overestimated. Recently a district partner shared that in just one year of piloting family connection visits, students who received visits had better attendance and substantially better growth, particularly in math, than their peers that did not.

5. Implement 1:1 monitoring and check-ins
Students giving their energy to catching up need to know they are making progress; likewise, schools need to stay on top of when students can transition to less-supported recovery and be successful in their regular class schedule so that tutoring/reteaching supports can be offered to other students needing it. Families need to be a part of this information loop to maintain the strong school-home connection, and students need to feel they have an ally by their side who is listening, warmly pushing, encouraging, and supporting their success. An important role for this person might also be to facilitate warm connection and good communication between the student and regular classroom teachers as the student builds greater confidence in their knowledge and skills.

Imagine these strategies were the norm in every school and system. We predict improved trend lines in not only chronic absenteeism but also in the engagement, success, and happiness of Colorado’s students and teachers.