How do you get kids to miss less school? Resources, strong relationships and ‘nudge letters,’ a county effort finds

A woman wearing glasses sits at a classroom table talking with six children, holding a book.
Carter Anderson, a kindergarten teacher at Perkins K-8 in Barrio Logan, is seen working with her students on a reading assignment in 2020. To keep student attendance up, a county initiative has worked to ensure students have strong relationships with an adult on campus.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A San Diego County Office of Education network of 18 schools is using multiple strategies to improve attendance


A San Diego County effort to improve student attendance recently reported success in its participating schools.

Chronic absenteeism — when a student misses at least 10 percent of the school year due to excused or unexcused absences — is one of schools’ biggest challenges, particularly since the pandemic began.

Absenteeism, which tends to be higher among underrepresented and disadvantaged students, means students can’t access the academic and other supports schools offer. High absenteeism rates also have financial implications for school districts and charter schools, whose state funding hinges upon student attendance.

Absenteeism soared after the onset of COVID-19. Countywide, 30 percent of public school students were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year, the latest year for which comprehensive data is available. That’s up from 11 percent in 2018-2019.

In response, for the last three years the San Diego County Office of Education has organized efforts to dig into the causes and help schools lower absenteeism.

Perkins K-8 represents many of the biggest challenges facing thousands of schools nationwide: homelessness, absenteeism, understaffing and low test scores.

May 4, 2023

The Improving Chronic Absence Network, which spans the school year, gathers school leaders for training and professional development around reducing student absenteeism. This past school year, 18 schools from five districts participated.

Among the 9,000 students who attended those schools, chronic absenteeism fell from 41 percent of students in the 2021-2022 school year to 32 percent this past school year after the schools deployed interventions, according to a county report released last month.

“Even though we got better, we still have way too many students missing way too much school,” said Todd Langager of the San Diego County Office of Education, who oversees the absenteeism network.

The most common reasons for high absenteeism revolved around families’ lack of resources: Students weren’t coming to school because of poor health, parents working multiple jobs or a lack of transportation, child care or affordable housing, Langager said.

People donated more than $27,000 to Perkins K-8 because of the story, principal Fernando Hernández told me. Perkins and many other schools like it would benefit from greater community involvement.

July 1, 2023

“The same factors why kids were absent prior to the pandemic largely still hold true — the pandemic just exacerbated a lot of those factors,” Langager said.

Sometimes schools also had to clear up misconceptions about the importance of school attendance, Langager said. And while state law classifies some kinds of absences as “excused,” including absences due to illness or medical appointments, Langager said schools are trying to combat the notion that some families may have that a lot of absences are OK as long as they’re excused.

“In reality, an absence is an absence,” Langager said. “We still want that kid in school, so how do we work with families that are maybe racking up a large number of excused absences?”

One of the main strategies that schools have used to curb absenteeism is sending home “nudge letters” with students, notifying families of their students’ many absences and reminding them of the importance of attending school.

Schools have also worked on ensuring that chronically absent students each had a strong relationship with an adult on campus. For example, school teams would identify the adult who has the closest connection with a chronically absent student and encourage that person to reach out to the student regularly.

It’s unclear, however, whether the absenteeism network’s interventions were directly responsible for the improved rates. The county’s report noted that the 9 percent drop in absenteeism is comparable to absenteeism declines in other major cities such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Despite this, Langager said the county is confident that the interventions helped. For example, there was a 29 percent decrease in absenteeism among the nearly 600 students who received two nudge letters.