Which Funders Are Targeting Chronic Absenteeism in America's Schools?

Say the words "education philanthropy" to someone, and you'll likely conjure up images of new charter schools and standards for teachers. But as we often point out, the agenda of K-12 funders is actually remarkably broad, and a number of new priority areas have emerged in recent years. 

One niche worth spotlighting is absenteeism. 

Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a single school year for excused or unexcused reasons, is a primary driver of low academic achievement and a significant predictor of which students will eventually drop out of school. The problem of chronic absenteeism is especially prevalent among students who already face significant education challenges, including low-income students, students of color, and those with disabilities.

Among a growing number of school systems, the rate of chronic absenteeism is replacing the traditional average daily attendance (ADA) rate as the measure of student school attendance. High ADA rates of 90 percent and higher suggest high student attendance overall, but may mask significant rates of chronic absenteeism in particular schools or student populations.

Recognizing the problem that chronic absences pose, the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services teamed up together last fall to launch "Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism," a companion to President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative. The initiative aims to forge tighter links among various stakeholders to build awareness of the problem of chronic absenteeism and work to eliminate the problem.

This initiative has roots in efforts that go back nearly a decade, with foundations playing a key role. In 2006, the Annie E. Casey Foundation commissioned research that looked at why so many young children were missing a lot of school days, how absenteeism was affecting educational outcomes, and what might be done about this problem. That work to led further research finding that absenteeism had serious negative consequences, especially for Latino kids. As a result, a number of educational advocacy groups began to make absenteeism a priority, and Attendance Works, a new national initiative, was launched in 2010 to tackle the problem with initial funding from Casey and also the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It has since received funding from a number of other major foundations, including the California Endowment and the Packard Foundation, as well local funders backing its work in specific areas, including the San Francisco Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which focuses on Arkansas.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is another funder in the space. Last fall, it awarded up to $1 million in grants in support of Every Student, Every Day. Mott's grants will fund a public awareness campaign and a mentoring project. On the public awareness side, Mott awarded $500,000 to the Advertising Council, which will collaborate with the Department of Education on a campaign to educate parents and communities about the problem of chronic absence and its detrimental effects on student success.

On the mentoring side, Mott will support a data-driven campaign aimed at reaching targeted students in communities across the country. For this effort, Mott awarded a $500,000 grant to Johns Hopkins University and will ensure that the funder's hometown of Flint, Michigan, will receive technical assistance in implementing the mentoring program.

Mott's support of this initiative to reduce chronic absences aligns with the funder's longstanding support of after-school programs. Research indicates that participation in quality after-school programs can lead to improved student outcomes, including improved attendance.