This story about absenteeism in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to statewide, data-driven investigative reporting. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter and the AZCIR newsletter.
Pandemic-related school closures wreaked havoc on attendance. Strict quarantine periods and policies demanding students stay home at any hint of a cough or runny nose tormented schools even after they reopened. Students got out of the habit of getting to school on time or going consistently at all.
By the 2021-22 school year, districts and charter networks across the country were facing what many dubbed a crisis of absenteeism. Students weren’t showing up, and educators had to act.
In Arizona, many responded as they had prior to the pandemic: with punishment, maintaining or even increasing the share of students they suspended for missing class. Yet others sharply limited the number of students suspended for attendance-related violations in the wake of the pandemic, and dozens more pushed ahead with less punitive strategies they had already adopted.
These distinctions — directly tied to the freedom afforded Arizona school systems to design their own disciplinary policies — emerged as part of a nearly yearlong investigation into attendance-related suspensions by The Hechinger Report and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. The first-of-its-kind analysis found nearly 47,000 suspensions for missing class over a five-year period, with Black, Latino and Indigenous students frequently receiving a disproportionate share.
Because this disciplinary tactic has uneven support across schools, whether students experience it can depend more on where they go to school than the fact that they missed class.
Take, for instance, Glendale Union High School District. Across its 11 schools, which together serve almost 16,700 students, district data shows administrators handed out nearly 12,500 suspensions for attendance violations over the past five school years. In 2021-22, they meted out nearly 2,200 of these in-school suspensions — more than in any of the preceding years analyzed. A district spokeswoman declined to comment on the data, saying it was under review.
Agua Fria Union High School District, meanwhile, moved in the opposite direction. The 9,200-student district used to be one of the state’s top suspenders for attendance. During the 2017-18 school year, students spent about 409 days in in-school suspensions for attendance violations — about 40 percent of all such suspensions, according to district records. Last school year, they spent 36 days, or 6 percent.
Educators there and in other districts that avoid using attendance-related suspensions say doing so requires a two-pronged approach: focusing on making school a place where students want to be while approaching absenteeism as a problem to solve, rather than a behavior calling for punishment.
They contend this strategy, not suspensions, is what actually improves students’ attendance — and it avoids the damaging consequences of blocking kids from class.
“We are not providing the student resources to cope in healthier ways when we use suspension alone,” said Phillip Nowlin, Agua Fria’s deputy superintendent of academics and schools.
“Our goal is to keep them in the classroom and identify the root of the behavior.”
‘Make sure the kids are in school’
Indeed, educators in several districts that rarely suspend for attendance violations say addressing the causes of student absenteeism is crucial.
In some districts, school leaders have forged relationships with community partners willing to buy alarm clocks for students to help them get up and out of their homes on time. Others described principals picking up students in their own cars to get them to class.
In other cases, where academic struggles or bullying was to blame, tutoring and counseling helped re-engage students and keep them in class.
Darryl Williford is assistant principal of the K-8 Michael Anderson School in the Avondale Elementary School District, where district leaders have encouraged a particularly data-driven approach to tracking student absenteeism, identifying who needs support and then focusing on relationships to address families’ needs.
Williford said he used to call parents regularly to detail the consequences they might face if their child’s attendance didn’t improve. Now, he said, he calls with the goal of finding out what is keeping a child from school and how he might help.
Ensuring kids get to — and stay in — class is especially important given the type of teaching and learning that is more common in classrooms today, where students carry on academic conversations and problem-solve together during hands-on assignments, he said.
He can’t remember the last time he suspended a student for missing class.
“A kid comes to school and they’re late … and I’m going to send them right back home? That just doesn’t make sense to me,” Williford said. “My job is to make sure the kids are in school as much as possible.”
In some districts, leaders’ shift away from attendance-related suspensions is a recent one. But other Arizona educators have fought the practice — and promoted alternatives geared toward eliminating barriers to attendance — for years.
Bahja Ali, a former caseworker for the state, said witnessing one too many suspensions for attendance violations spurred her to become an educator in the first place. One of the students on her caseload was a pregnant teen suffering from morning sickness, she recalled. The school’s response to her irregular attendance was blocking her from class even when she was feeling well.
Ali’s voice gets animated when she tells this story.
“Why are we not looking at why they missed in the first place instead of going to punishment?” asked Ali, now principal of El Dorado High School in Chandler.
Limited research exists on whether suspensions are actually effective when it comes to discouraging absenteeism — and the debate can be fierce. Administrators in districts that suspend for attendance violations argued students had to be held accountable for their actions, particularly when their absences created liability concerns. Often, they said, kids failed to take lesser forms of punishment seriously.
But Arizona educators like Ali believe suspending for an absence or a tardy hurts more than it helps, and shouldn’t happen at all.
An alternative charter school, El Dorado serves about 220 students searching for academic and behavioral support they couldn’t find at traditional schools. Ali tells students that their past makes them who they are, but it doesn’t define them, and at her school, she creates room for students to develop new habits and try on new educational identities.
“Every discipline issue that comes up,” Ali said, “we’re always asking: ‘Why? I see this behavior, I recognize this behavior — what’s contributing to it? What do we need to do to overcome it?’ ”
Her students notice.
El Dorado senior Tyequan Colkey, for instance, said he spent his middle school years in Buffalo, New York, regularly getting suspended for absenteeism. He became numb to the punishment and said he stopped caring when he got suspended. “I didn’t go to school anyways, so it didn’t do nothing,” he said. Indeed, all a suspension accomplished was further alienating him from school.
“It showed me that they didn’t want me there anyways,” he said. “So why would I go?”
After moving to Arizona at 16, he first attended a large, traditional high school, where he felt lost and unsupported. He frequently skipped class, he said, and when the pandemic shut down his school, all he needed to do was ignore his computer.
When Colkey transferred to El Dorado last school year, he brought his attendance problems with him. But Ali and her staff chased after him, overwhelming him with phone calls, texts and even home visits, trying to convince him to show up. They told him he was capable and a leader and shouldn’t throw away his potential. At school, teachers gave him more personal attention and worked to help him understand the course content.
While he admits to being late on occasion, Colkey, 19, said he now goes to school daily.
“They’re putting in the effort,” Colkey said of El Dorado staff. “I might as well put in the effort, too.”
He’s due to graduate in the spring, and he hopes to follow his high school diploma with a college degree.
While alternative schools tend to be known for their smaller student populations and more flexible policies, leaders of some larger, more traditional school districts have also committed to minimizing harsh punishments.
Lupita Hightower, Arizona’s Superintendent of the Year and head of the Tolleson Elementary School District, sets the tone for five schools serving about 2,900 students, advocating against attendance-related suspensions and expulsions.
To be effective, the approach has to “come from the top,” she said, and then “everyone has to be in agreement on that philosophy.”
In Tolleson Elementary School District, every adult is called a “treasure hunter,” tasked with searching for the talents, skills and intelligence that exist in every child and believing that all children are capable of success, “no exceptions.” Each child in the district is paired with an adult treasure hunter, like Hightower, who checks in with them regularly.
Student clubs and extracurriculars, including an award-winning mariachi band, aim to help students find a welcoming home in their schools. A health clinic in the district, funded with philanthropic dollars, helps address illnesses early and get kids back to school. Even the school food is considered a way to entice students to show up: “Pozole day” is a favorite, Hightower said, and she has heard students complaining to their parents when they get picked up for appointments early and miss the Mexican soup.
Though Hightower is proud of the district’s disciplinary record over her nearly 12-year tenure as superintendent, the approach hasn’t come without criticism. When Tolleson Elementary’s school board presented at a national conference about its efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions, for example, some in the audience argued that the model meant a lack of accountability for kids.
Hightower doesn’t see it that way. The district uses peer mediation and a program called restorative justice that encourages students to take responsibility for their actions, while still limiting suspensions.
“For us, it’s not like the kids are running around wild,” Hightower said. “There’s a lot of strategy and a lot of work around that philosophy and that belief.”
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