During the 2015-16 school year nearly 10 percent of Connecticut public school children met the criteria for being chronically absent. The disruption COVID-19 wrought on education only exacerbated the problem.
The Connecticut State Department of Education launched the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP) in April 2021 to help address these issues. In 15 school districts throughout the state, school officials and representatives from local non-profit agencies conducted home visits with almost 9,000 students who were considered chronically absent.
School officials often assisted families with food, job placement, or just general support to remove any external barriers to school attendance. While the program took on slightly different manifestations depending on the district, the overall objective was the same–to offer help to families and children.
Steven E. Stemler, professor of psychology and co-chair of the College of Education Studies, was tasked with determining whether outreach efforts had a positive impact on student attendance.
Funded by the Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaborative (CCERC), Stemler worked alongside academics and student researchers from Wesleyan, Central Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut to show the specific result of the program. After reviewing quantitative data from the students and speaking with over 100 district leaders, home visitors, and families, the research showed that LEAP improved student attendance.
Students who participated in the LEAP intervention showed a significant and long-lasting increase in attendance rates, Stemler said. Program participant attendance increased by 15 percent, on average, six-months after receiving their first LEAP Home Visit. LEAP was particularly effective in the Hartford Public Schools, with an increase of 30 percent attendance over six months.
“Perhaps the most important point raised by district leaders, home visitors, and families is that efforts to re-engage students who [are] chronically absent requires a sustained commitment over time,” according to the report.
Goodwill flowed throughout the process, Stemler said. The Connecticut State Department of Education trusted districts to do what was right for their constituents, districts trusted families, and families then did the same for their children.
“I think establishing that trust with families was crucial. The model has shifted from what used to be the case when people came knocking on your door because you weren’t going to school—–it was the punitive orientation of the truancy officer. The LEAP model is totally different. The idea here is ‘what can we do to help? How can we support you?’ It really transformed the relationship,” Stemler said.
By offering assistance rather than punishment, schools can begin to better assess the situational forces involved in a student’s chronic absenteeism, Stemler said. “Teachers get a better understanding of what’s going on in the students’ lives outside of school,” he said.
From what he observed in the research, Stemler believes LEAP’s fundamental principles are transferrable to the different educational situations found across the country. He is hoping to continue the research to determine which strategies worked and for whom specifically. “I think it can work a lot of different places, but the model has to fit the community,” he said. “Every district is a little bit different in Connecticut. Some are small and others are so large they need to use community partners to do this sort of thing. I think the flexibility is an important aspect of this.”
Understanding the psychological idea of attribution—how individuals perceive the causes of everyday experience—played an important role in Stemler’s work on the project. Students weren’t always simply skipping school. Bus routes would change. Schools would send confusing or contradictory messages. People got regular colds and moved into rigorous COVID-19 protocols. The reasons a student missed school could be because they and their families needed more help.
By offering that help, and a bit of grace, Stemler learned that school districts could be more effective at getting kids back into the classroom.
“We often make personal attributions to students who are not engaged in school, as if they have problems, or particular characteristics, or something wrong with their families. We are really underestimating the importance of their situations. This project really emphasized having to be aware of situational forces … It has made me, as a teacher, more sensitive to the challenges people are facing,” Stemler said.