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COVID broke the habit of attending school. Now, districts are spending millions to bring kids back

Stephanie Hughes Jun 27, 2023
Heard on:
About one in three students are chronically absent, double the number before the pandemic. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

COVID broke the habit of attending school. Now, districts are spending millions to bring kids back

Stephanie Hughes Jun 27, 2023
Heard on:
About one in three students are chronically absent, double the number before the pandemic. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

There’s that old saying: half of life is just showing up. Well, that’s not going so great for us right now — at least when it comes to school. The number of kids in American schools who are chronically absent has doubled since before the pandemic. That means about one in every three students is missing at least 10% of school days in a year, according to an estimate from the nonprofit Attendance Works. And now, there’s a growing business in getting kids to show up to school.

Part of that work involves a lot of driving. Chaz Morton feels comfortable handling a 10-passenger green and white van around the streets of Baltimore. It belongs to Concentric Educational Solutions, which contracts with school districts to visit families of chronically absent students. On a recent afternoon, Morton grabbed his laptop and a pile of letters before heading out. 

“All my tools. I need every last one of them,” said Morton. 

Morton wore a navy tailored suit, and his green tie matched the company logo. He stood out in the Baltimore neighborhood he visited, where half the homes have boarded up windows and doors. But it’s clear people live there: some were sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, and a little girl roller skated down the block.

Morton’s first stop was a high schooler’s family.

“All right, so we actually knocked on the door, sat there for a few, no one answered,” said Morton.

He left a letter instead, letting the family know the student’s been missing school. Next stop, same deal. No answer. Morton said he talks with a family member or student about one out of every three visits. And, indeed, at Morton’s third stop, where a tenth grader lives, someone answered the door.

“The mother and father get up to go to work at about five o’clock in the morning,” said Morton. “Then they don’t return until five in the afternoon. But then the mother has a second job.”

Morton said the parents spoke Spanish, so he used the Google Translate app on his phone to communicate. 

“The father was on the phone letting me know that the sons stay up late playing video games,” said Morton. “So I let them know it’s OK for them to play video games, but they probably need to be monitored as to how much time they’re spending on the game.”

Morton recently moved on from Concentric. But he said he was drawn to working in education after years of working as a correctional officer, where he saw a lot of kids.

“I wanted to be the one that started to help,” said Morton. “Maybe steer them in a better direction, so they didn’t have to come through the judicial system.”

Research suggests this work is helping: Concentric contracted with the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education for an evaluation, which found that, in Baltimore before the pandemic, interventions by Concentric improved attendance by 3.5%. Researchers called this “a small but statistically significant impact.”

Districts can choose different pricing models: about $150 for five visits to one student’s home, or about $75 for a one-off. 

Demand for the company’s services, which also include mentoring and tutoring, is increasing: Concentric said it’s gone from taking in roughly a million dollars in revenue annually before the pandemic to $8 million now. It’s also grown from about 20 to 200 employees, who work across multiple states. 

“That’s clear validation of our growth,” said Himanshi Sharma, Concentric’s director of Strategy and Innovation.

Part of the work is to help remind families that school is important. 

“The shutting down of schools broke the habit of attendance,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown. She said it affected not just older students, but also the parents of younger ones. 

“There’s some thought that those kids were little when the pandemic started, and their parents just got used to keeping them home,” said Jordan. 

There are other companies working in this space, and like Concentric, see the importance of sending a letter, or as EveryDay Labs CEO Emily Bailard calls it, a nudge.

“We design these nudges to be posted on a refrigerator,” said Bailard. “We call it having shelf life in the home, and it really serves to provide a daily reminder.”

The letters EveryDay Labs sends compare a student’s attendance to that of their classmates. They were inspired by the energy reports some utility companies send comparing your home’s electricity use to your neighbors’. 

“The majority of parents think that their child’s attendance is average or better than average,” said Bailard. “We don’t talk to our friends about our kids’ attendance. So how would we know?”

The startup sends texts, too, and EveryDay Labs’ research finds its interventions reduce the number of chronically absent students by 11% to 15%. The company works in districts around the country and charges between $5 to $10 per student per year. It won’t disclose exact revenue, but says it’s between $5 million and $15 million annually — triple what it was in 2019. 

One driver of growth: some districts still have federal COVID relief funds, which need to be spent by September 2024. Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said the expiration date for that money is an incentive for districts to buy software or contracting services, as opposed to bringing on new employees.

“You may not want to hire staff with that, because in two or three years, you’re going to have to get rid of them, because it’s not ongoing money,” said Chang. 

But the challenges facing these companies are daunting. For example, 18-year-old Paola Iniestra-Sierra was chronically absent from her Omaha high school. She worked five nights a week at a fast food place, contributing to her household’s income, and wouldn’t get home until at least 11pm, exhausted.

“I wouldn’t go to school,” said Iniestra-Sierra. “When I tried to go to school, I felt like I wasn’t getting the help that I needed.”

She hated attending class virtually and was having shouting matches with her parents. 

“That’s when I got really drained,” she said. “I was tired of everything.” 

Iniestra-Sierra missed enough class that, with a counselor’s help, she moved to a group home setting, where she repeated her senior year, and graduated this spring. 

But she’s still working through how disconnected she felt from school when classes were virtual because of the pandemic.

“Nothing felt real,” she said. 

That’s another challenge for the growing attendance industry: getting kids to show up to class after we told them, for years, to stay home.

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