Centering Youth and Community Perspectives to Support Attendance and Engagement
The return of both educators and students to in-person schooling has not been a story of seamless transition. We hoped the chaos of the pandemic would recede and a sense of normalcy would return, but 18 months of isolation, remote learning, and widespread uncertainty cast a long shadow that has lingered as new challenges have emerged to test both individuals and systems. While many schools have made strong efforts to create welcoming school climates and support social emotional learning, the related issues of student attendance and engagement remain a prominent concern for educators. To develop effective, responsive supports for students, it is essential to move beyond viewpoints that traditionally shape both policy and practice in school systems or our efforts will fail to address the unique needs of the current moment. This research brief will explore student voices on truancy and disengagement in “Youths’ Perspectives on the Reasons Underlying School Truancy and Opportunities to Improve School Attendance” (Gase, et al., 2016), and the solutions developed by formerly incarcerated high school noncompleters in “Strategy Development for Urban Dropout Prevention: Partnering with Formerly Incarcerated Adult Non-completers” (Irby and Mawhinney, 2014).
Student engagement and connection to school is complex, driven by both structural factors that lie beyond educators’ immediate control and school and even classroom-specific policies, practices, and individual relationships. Christopher Kearney’s (2008) “An Interdisciplinary Model of School Absenteeism in Youth to Inform Professional Practice and Public Policy” synthesized a vast body of research and identified a complex ecology driven by factors “related to the child, parents, family, peers, school and community” (Gase, DeFosset, 2016, p. 299). Despite the subject’s complexity, Gase, et al.’s. research team recognized that “unfortunately, many truancy reduction interventions have been designed without explicit input or feedback from the population” (p. 300). In response, they designed a participatory research process that utilized youth research assistants to “identify potential participants in their existing school and community networks” (p. 301). Including youth researchers ensured that those interviewed could provide relevant information and their participation in the interview process allowed for a more honest exchange around the causes of disengagement and reasons that students avoided school.
Gase, et al.’s (2016) participatory research design allowed youth to identify and provide recommendations to address multiple factors directly within the school’s control. For instance, students identified unengaging and impersonal instructional style as being highly likely to increase absenteeism. They recommended that schools “reduce class sizes to allow for more individual academic attention from teachers” and “employ a variety of instructional styles that encourage active participation by students” (p. 304). While there are structural impediments to decreasing class sizes in the short-term, experimenting with different instructional practices with input from students, particularly after a year of remote instruction, is a promising alternative to simply returning to pre-pandemic methodologies. Youth also identified “negative relationships or conflict with teachers” as a powerful driver of disengagement. They recommended teachers “be aware of and attempt to understand students’ personal struggles, respond to problematic behavior in a way that is empathetic and solution-focused and work to establish positive relationships with students” (p.305). Inversely, students identified a positive relationship with a teacher as likely to increase engagement and school connectedness (p.305). The impact of negative relationships was illustrated vividly by a female participant:
R: One of my teachers didn’t want me in my class, so I stopped going in there.
That’s when I started ditching for the rest of the day.
I: How did you know the teacher didn’t want you in there?
R: Because I had band class and he told me that I wasn’t playing good so I
needed to get out.
I: Really? So then you started ditching that class all the time?
R: Yeah, like I would leave for that period out of school, and I just wouldn’t
come back for the rest of that period. (#2)
Gase, et al. added further context to this story:
As illustrated in this quote, the conflict with the teacher caused the girl to feel unwelcome in that class and contributed to her decision to leave school for the rest of the day. This was the story with which the girl began her history of skipping and ditching, subsequent gang involvement and juvenile delinquency. In total, 10 youths reported a specific interpersonal conflict with their teacher as a reason for skipping class.
The pandemic was a traumatic experience for educators and students alike and building positive relationships that honors students’ agency is likely to support the social-emotional wellbeing of adults and youth. Finally, students identified a “chaotic or unsafe environment” as being highly likely to cause disengagement. This is true for educators as well. The primary solution the study participants offered was “schools should implement administrative models that allow for frequent and meaningful staff contact with each student” (p.305). Youth clearly identified relationships, communication, and contact with caring adults as the most effective way to address safety concerns. This fits with an overall emphasis on a positive environment and culture driven by reciprocally humanizing relationships as the foundation of school connectedness. This is especially important to note after the protracted isolation experienced by many during the past year.
While Gase, et al. (2016) sought the perspective of current students to better understand causes of absenteeism and disengagement, Irby and Mawhinney (2014) engaged with adults who had felt the most traumatic impact of a system that was not designed for their success. Irby and Mawhinney draw on intersectional feminist scholarship of Barbara Smith, Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw to ground their article in standpoint theory. They clarify their approach stating that “the perspectives of marginalized populations are rich sites of inquiry to critically probe and challenge existing power relations to improve society...The fact that the perspectives of marginalized adults are muted in dominant school improvement efforts may be part of why dropout prevention efforts in urban contexts remain minutely successful at best” (Irby and Mawhinney p. 111). Including voices who are traditionally disregarded by those who operate within education’s institutional structures offers a promising method to move beyond the echo chambers that dominate policy discussions.
The participants in Irby and Mawhinney’s study identified six factors that are likely to influence disengagement and dropout: government policies, family, personal factors, in-school factors, community conditions and culture (p. 114). Based on these causal factors, the study participants then engaged in focus groups designed to develop strategies to address truancy and dropout but are quite relevant for developing effective engagement with students, families, and the community. A group focused on policy developed a community mobilization model that would “collectively empower people to address a myriad of social and educational issues in their community.” This model clearly linked the material conditions of communities to the educational outcomes of their youth and recognized the need to mobilize individuals who do not have official positions within school districts. (p. 115). Another group outlined a family wraparound support model that proceeded from the understanding that “the wellbeing of the child depends on the wellbeing of the family unit, particularly the knowledge and resources available to the parent.” To help parents support their children, this group suggested that “schools could develop partnerships with community-based organizations.” They described it functioning as a means to connect parents to necessary resources in a supportive manner:
In the event that school personnel or a representative from a community-based organization knows of a parent’s need, these workers should be prepared and willing to deploy resources in ways that allow parents to access them in either a school or community setting, whichever is most convenient.
Finally, the study participants saw clear roles for individuals with experiences similar to their own in providing direct support to students and families. An exchange between an interviewee and community stakeholder discussed how they could function in a cultural broker role, reaching parts of the community where schools and nonprofits lack the necessary connections and credibility to function effectively:
Stakeholder: The services that I’m responsible for are predominately voluntary. So, we go knock on the door and try to find out what’s going on. The family says “I don’t want you in my house. We don’t want you here.” So, the pushback that we hear both from community leaders and services that try to go into the homes is the families don’t want us there. That’s one thing, and then one thing we hear from the schools is we want parent involvement, we want parent engagement, but we have a really hard time getting the parents involved.
George: But this is exactly what we can do, right. We’re able to reach places where other people are not able to reach. We have a stake in this community, actually doing things with these people out in these communities. They’re really more able to talk to us about whatever’s going on. So, if we can devise something that we can work with the guidance counselors, truancy officers, if they can give us these people’s names and addresses, we can actually go to these houses to build rapport, you know what I’m saying? They might not want to have an agency come in, but they know me from the neighborhood. . .We try to assess their situation and work as a network. If they have a problem, we’ll say, “Okay, well, Agency Representative, this is the problem happening at the household. How can we address that?” And then you will give me information to address it and take it back to them and explain “This is how they want to address it. Are you okay with this?” We want to all meet together, and then we’ll go on from
there.” That’s how it could work.
Stakeholder: I agree with you on that. You have a passion for it. For many service providers in the schools, it’s a job. It’s not even a career for some people. That’s the disconnect.
As schools strive to build engagement, support attendance, and develop positive connections with students and families, integrating the perspectives of both students and adults who have not been well served by the system is essential. While the pandemic was undoubtedly traumatic for the whole of society, it disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities and people living in poverty who could not work remotely. Recognizing this, schools must ensure that their efforts to support attendance, engagement, empower youth and adults like the participants in these studies, shape both policy and practice. Only through meaningful, equitable collaboration with these constituencies can districts build supportive, humanizing cultures where all truly have the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive.