Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It only stands to reason: When students don't go to school and attend class — neither in person nor remotely — they don't learn.
That's why disturbingly low attendance rates the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently reported across the state demand intensive, immediate attention. School staff must use extra efforts to get students back in the classrooms. And families and communities must also get involved in keeping track of kids and seeing that they attend class.
MDE says only 70% of students attended class at least 90% of the time during the 2021-2022 school year. That's a significant decrease from pre-pandemic times, when 85% of students were regularly showing up for school.
Last year in Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, 1 in 4 students were chronically absent, missing more than 10% of the school year. That's nearly twice the rate that prevailed before the pandemic. In pre-pandemic Minneapolis, 79% of kids were in school regularly, while in 2022 the percentage dropped to 46%.
Like many worrisome education trends, attendance decreases have had particularly severe impacts on lower-income kids and students of color. In 2019, the consistent attendance rate was 71% for Minneapolis' Black students and 44% for Native American students; those numbers dropped below one-third of Black students and under a quarter of Native American students in 2022.
Research demonstrates that dropping and stagnant test scores can be tied to irregular attendance. University of Chicago studies show that students with strong attendance records are much more likely to stay on track, do well throughout their years in school and go on to higher education. And the data indicate that being present in school is more strongly correlated with student success than other characteristics including race, gender and poverty levels.
To combat the nonattendance trend in Minneapolis, teams of school staff members are reaching out to kids through its We Want You Back program. They text, call, use social media and canvass communities to find out if groups of teenagers are gathering outside of school during the day.
In St. Paul, the School Attendance Matters (SAM) effort helps individual schools with attendance improvement strategies.
Though individual schools and districts should tailor efforts to their needs, researchers say that several general strategies can help improve attendance.
Among them: Keep accurate attendance data, share it with staff and quickly intervene. Build stronger, supportive relationships between adults and students to improve student interest in school, the sense of belonging and the desire to be present. Provide engaging, relevant instruction; students are more motivated to attend class if coursework is interesting to them. Create a team approach, emphasizing collective responsibility for student attendance throughout the school. And, if possible, offer additional mental health resources to students who are missing school because they need help.
An MDE spokesperson told an editorial writer that that there are several state programs — such as the Minnesota Multi-Tiered System of Supports and the Collaborative Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success — that can offer schools guidance on identifying and addressing barriers to consistent student attendance.
We'd add the essential role that parents, guardians, relatives and communities play in student attendance. Those all-important influencers on kids' lives outside school should step up and take personal responsibility for making sure young people get to class — where they belong.