Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have struggled to reengage students who are chronically absent from school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 72% of schools reported an increase in chronic absenteeism in the 2021-22 school year. The difficult transition to hybrid learning models in addition to other challenges worsened by the pandemic led to declining levels of student engagement and attendance. Despite the severity of existing challenges, schools in Connecticut have found significant success in reengaging students using home visits.
Chronic absenteeism can have long-term impacts on students’ health, academic achievement, graduation rates, and their likelihood of being impacted by poverty or the justice system. State policymakers may look to attendance and engagement programs as one option to support students.
According to Kari Sullivan-Custer, the attendance lead at the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Learner Attendance and Engagement Program (LEAP) has seen immediate and significant declines in student absenteeism. In a recent interview, Sullivan-Custer mentioned that chronic absenteeism has always been a top priority for state leaders.
During the 2015-16 school year, state data suggests that more than 50,000 students in Connecticut’s public schools had met the criteria for being chronically absent. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these numbers and resulted in call for action by state officials and school leaders. In April 2021, the department of education and Gov. Ned Lamont announced the state would invest $10.7 million of Connecticut’s federal COVID-19 recovery funding into LEAP.
In the summer of 2021, LEAP took off by engaging 15 school districts struggling with high levels of chronic absenteeism. The program includes a partnership between the department of education and six Regional Education Service Centers. It’s designed to help equip and train school employees or local community members to visit the homes of children who have been chronically absent from school.
In spring 2022, the Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaboration published a report on LEAP’s attendance results and specified that students in pre-K through fifth grade experienced an eight percentage point increase in attendance nine months after the first LEAP visit. Students in grades six through 12 experienced an even greater increase in attendance rates — sixteen percentage points — during the same period.
Sullivan-Custer credits the LEAP program’s success in improving school attendance to the efforts of home visitors developing trusting relationships with families. The home visit model transitions away from the traditional punitive and truancy-based perspectives. Instead of asking, “why isn’t your student attending school?” home visitors shift their language to, “what could help your student attend school regularly?” To address language barriers, the program considers cultural competency in its training model and encourages home visitors to work with families they speak the same language as.
Sullivan-Custer emphasizes that the home visit initiative is more than just making sure a student is attending school regularly. It’s about making sure families have support to address barriers such as access to “health care, quality housing, Wi-Fi connection and other resources that impact a child’s ability to engage in schools.” Home visitors offer a range of services from mentoring, tutoring and transportation to after-school programs and financial aid application support. This upcoming year, Gov. Ned Lamont is planning to invest an additional $7 million of federal recovery funding into the program in hopes of reaching more school districts and students.
Connecticut’s LEAP program’s ability to leverage the importance of building trusting relationships and accommodating the needs of families has resulted in notable drops in school chronic absenteeism. Given the ramifications of chronic absenteeism for student success, other states may benefit from the lessons of this initiative.