Chronic Absenteeism: Breaking the Vicious Cycle for Students of Color

Mar 27, 2024 3:53:13 PM


The hallways of our nation's schools should be filled with the sounds of learning and growth. But for far too many students of color, those hallways are marred by the toxic cloud of bullying and harassment. This ugly reality is a major contributor to the alarmingly high rates of chronic absenteeism among Black students in particular.  

The data is distressing. According to the Department of Education, Black students are 40% more likely to be chronically absent (lose three weeks of school or more). Research shows that missing just two days a month can put students at risk of falling behind academically. Chronic absenteeism is one of the top indicators that a student is becoming disengaged from school.

Why are Black students disproportionately disconnected? A key factor is the systemic racism that manifests as bullying and discriminatory discipline in our classrooms. Students of color face dehumanizing harassment at tremendously disproportionate rates. As a 2021 report found, Black boys, in particular, are over five times as likely as their white male peers to be harassed based on their race, sex, and disability status.

The psychological toll of enduring a hostile environment is crushing for any child or adolescent. It contributes to heightened anxiety, low self-esteem, and avoidance behaviors, like skipping school. Absences lead to lower achievement and higher dropout rates, feeding a vicious cycle of marginalization.

Schools must implement proven strategies to foster inclusive and affirmative cultures where people celebrate diversity.

Creating such an environment requires comprehensive anti-bullying policies, anti-bias teacher training, and student social-emotional support. Discriminatory discipline practices like disproportionately suspending and expelling Black students for minor, subjective infractions like “defiance” or “disrespect” push many out of the classroom unnecessarily. The racist legacy of harsher punishment for students of color continues to erode their connectedness to school.

Most importantly, we must listen to the lived experiences of students of color who bravely raise their voices about racism in their schools. Nurturing connections and communication can keep every child engaged on their pathway to lifelong learning and success.

The factors contributing to chronic absenteeism disproportionately affecting Black students are deeply rooted and complex. However, by implementing a multi-layered approach prioritizing equity, schools can begin dismantling inhospitable environments and reforging positive connections.

Robust attendance monitoring and early warning systems are essential to identify students at risk of becoming chronically absent. Such a system allows for targeted, preventative interventions.

Frequent, clear communication between schools and families is vital. Take steps to ensure two-way communication is accessible through translation into home languages (teacher to family member) and back again to English (family member to teacher). When schools and homes are united, it’s easier to build trust, and address issues collaboratively.

Anti-bullying policies must have teeth, backed by continuous and comprehensive training for all staff to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviors and harassment. Adminstrations should prioritie restorative practices, emphasizing accountability, repairing harm, and rebuilding relationships over overly punitive discipline.

Integrate social-emotional learning curriculums that build resilience, self-confidence, and conflict-resolution skills for all students school-wide. Dedicated counseling resources are also vital.  

Perhaps most importantly, schools must create spaces for genuine conversations to hear the voices and experiences of students of color. Listening clubs, student leadership opportunities, and participatory anti-racism initiatives can transform school cultures.

No single suggestion outlined here can dismantle the complex barriers creating inhospitable environments that breed absenteeism for our most vulnerable students. But by weaving together policies, practices, and perspectives through an equity funnel, we can rebuild supportive communities that engage and nurture all students.

Dr. Kara Stern

Dr. Kara Stern is the Director of Education and Engagement at SchoolStatus, a fully integrated data analytics and communications platform designed to improve student outcomes through comprehensive data and school-home engagement. A former teacher, principal, and head of school, she holds a Ph.D. in Teaching & Learning from NYU.

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...