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Absenteeism is rising: How an Indy school seeks to buck trends

(Provided Photo/Nash Ward via Mirror Indy)

INDIANAPOLIS (MIRROR INDY) — Precious Sarver’s son is a top student. The fourth grader has made the honor roll and he’s typically ahead in class, Sarver said. But this year, Josiah has also missed some school.

He needed surgery earlier in the year and later caught a stomach virus. That, compounded with some transportation challenges at home, has kept Josiah out of school more than 30 days this year.

With support from his teachers at Sankofa School of Success on the east side, Sarver said Josiah has stayed on top of his classwork. She communicated with the IPS innovation school about each planned absence and the school marked them as excused. In the eyes of the state, however, Josiah fits the definition of a chronically absent student.

“We’ll take some doctor’s notes and everything and mark it as excused in our system,” said Laurie Hargrove, the assistant head of school at Sankofa. “However, to the state, an absence is an absence.”

Josiah’s story isn’t unusual. Last school year, about 20% of students in Indiana were considered chronically absent, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. That number is almost twice that of the 2018-19 school year, the last year untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. Absenteeism was already high in some schools before the pandemic, but it skyrocketed in schools across the country as students returned from remote learning.

Growing concern over the national trend led state lawmakers to act this year, passing legislation with bipartisan support that requires schools to get more involved with students at risk for chronic absenteeism.

At Josiah’s school, educators are already taking some of those steps. At Sankofa, a school with historically high rates of absenteeism, administrators are using data, research and community outreach to better understand the barriers preventing some students from regularly attending school.

Their approach appears to be working. Though school officials say there’s still work to be done, chronic absenteeism rates have steadily decreased each year since the pandemic, improving by almost 20 percentage points over the last three years.

“We’ve really tried to wrap around our families in providing them with the supports that they need,” Hargove said, “Because if families are OK and home structures are OK that means our students are going to be OK.”

What is absenteeism?

In Indiana, most students are required by law to attend school from the time they turn 7 years old until they’re 18. 

A student is considered chronically absent when they’ve missed at least 10% of the school year, or about 18 days, for any reason. That includes absences that are often excused by schools, such as doctor’s visits. 

Because student attendance is required by law, schools have the authority to refer habitually absent students, defined as students who reach 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year, to juvenile courts or the Indiana Department of Child Services. Prosecutors can bring misdemeanor charges against parents who are responsible for ensuring their students attend school. 

As chronic absenteeism has grown, reaching more than 26% last year in Marion County, state lawmakers debated how to address the issue. Some proposed steps such as prohibiting elementary students from participating in extracurricular activities if they’re habitually truant. Instead, lawmakers settled legislation that seeks to reduce punitive measures, such as court referrals, and intercept students before they reach habitual truancy.

The new law, which will take effect this summer and apply only to grades K-6, will require public schools to have conferences with the parents of repeatedly absent students and create a plan to help improve that student’s attendance. 

Carolyn Gentle-Genitty, an absenteeism researcher who will join Butler University this summer to lead the new Founders College for two-year degrees, said she’s pleased with how legislators turned away from bans on extracurriculars, which can actually be one of the driving reasons some students want to go to school.

Gentle-Genitty said, however, to successfully address student attendance, lawmakers also need to understand why students are absent and how existing structures contribute to the rise in rates of chronic absenteeism. State data collection, for example, could do a better job of distinguishing why students are missing school rather than just marking any day a student is gone an absence, Gentle-Genitty said.

With that information, she said, lawmakers can make more informed decisions about why students are missing class and what resources the state should invest in to support schools as they seek to tackle the issue at a local level.

“We have to be clear with who needs the help, what type of help, where we need to provide that help and then be able to come together to provide that help holistically,” she said.

Why are students missing school?

Locally controlled schools don’t need to wait on the state to act, Gentle-Genitty said, and Sankofa is one of several Indianapolis schools making an effort now to better understand the causes of absenteeism.

Sankofa, which has absenteeism rates double those of state averages, reached a peak 70% chronic absenteeism rate in the 2020-21 school year following the pandemic-driven school closures.

The school began a partnership just before the pandemic with the local education nonprofit Fight For Life Foundation, led by former Indianapolis Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, to begin using the foundation’s online platform that tracks data on student behavior and absenteeism.

The platform, called Building Dreams, allows students to take a self-assessment with prompts asking about how they feel at the start of their school day. Are they stressed, excited or nervous? And why?

Those responses are then shared with school counselors and educators so they can piece together why a student’s been missing class. Maybe a student feels bullied and that’s why they’ve been avoiding a class, or maybe a teen just started their period and that’s why they’ve skipped gym for the week.

Gentle-Genitty, who sits on Fight For Life’s board of directors, said she’s learned through her research that families’ attitudes about school changed during the pandemic. While parents once may have encouraged their children to go to school with a stuffy nose or cold, now they’ve become more cautious. Families also learned that students could manage school from home by keeping up with assignments and missed classwork online.

Even before the pandemic, Hargrove said, transportation could be a major factor in some students’ attendance. She said the number of buses serving the school have dropped from seven to four in recent years. This came after IPS, which provides transportation to the innovation school, looked to save money by more strictly enforcing student walk zones. IPS also cut down the number of bus routes districtwide. 

“That is a barrier,” Hargrove said. “Knowing our neighborhood, not every family that’s in a walk zone is completely comfortable with their child walking to school.”

Sarver knows well the difficulty of getting her three kids to school on time every day. Each attends a different eastside school, meaning she’s familiar with how sometimes unpredictable road construction and traffic can throw a curveball in her kids’ days. She’s responsible for daily drop off and pick up, and if somebody gets sick at school and brings it home, as happened this year, the entire family is affected.

“The whole house shut down because I have no one else to rely on to come and even pick them up,” she said. “It’s completely shut down if I’m shut down.”

One school’s approach to curbing absences

Sankofa leaders say they want to do everything they can to make getting to school easier on families — and their methods are showing early signs of success. Sankofa has improved its chronic absenteeism rate from just more than 70% to 52% last school year.

The school uses the Building Dreams platform to not only study absenteeism but also to learn about students’ needs and connect them with resources. Sankofa is also home to a City Connects coordinator — essentially a community liaison — who works with teachers to make a plan for every student. When they notice a student has been absent, usually for about a week or so, coordinator Omega Robinson is there to reach out to the student and their family.

Robinson said she sends home letters, makes phone calls and meets with families in person so she can learn what’s happening behind the scenes that can affect a student’s attendance. She said she often looks to help families with bus passes or referrals to community services, such as grief counseling, for those in need of support beyond what a school can offer.

“It just goes back to having those conversations with those families and trying to catch it before it gets too far,” Robinson said. “It’s not a thing of trying to point my finger. I’m coming into the conversation so we can come up with a plan, trying to work alongside our families.”

Sankofa leaders say they also focus attention on making sure students see their school as a fun place to be. In addition to flagging potential concerns, Building Dreams also helps teachers track student successes. If a student shows behavioral growth or good attendance, they can earn points to win prizes at the campus store. The school has also organized field trips and a dance — which they’re calling the atten-DANCE — for students who are regularly coming to class.

“We try to incentivize it here and get students excited about being at school,” Hargrove said. “Because if they’re excited about what we’re doing here, they’re not going to want to miss a day.”

Sarver said she tries to maintain good communication with the school whenever she knows her son will be absent. When Sarver’s son was out of class for his surgery, she talked to the school to let them know he’d be missing for a couple weeks. However, because of a miscommunication, Josiah’s teacher wasn’t immediately aware of the fourth grader’s planned absence. Sarver said the teacher waited only three days to check in.

“That just speaks to the level of care of our teachers,” Hargrove said. “I tell (our families) all the time, ‘Hey, we’re a part of your village, too.’”

Mirror Indy reporter Carley Lanich covers early childhood and K-12 education. Contact her at or follow her on X @carleylanich.