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Building a Culture of Attendance

Catherine is a senior communications professional helping social change organizations tell their story in powerful ways. She has expertise in public health, environmental stewardship, philanthropy and education. Follow her on Twitter @CatBrozena

An interview with Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works

Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance Works
Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance Works

There’s a popular saying often attributed to the famed film director, Woody Allen, that says, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

If that’s the case, then Hedy Chang of Attendance Works probably understands the importance of such an assertion more than most folks. In fact, I would bet that she would wholeheartedly agree.

Chang is a passionate and skilled presenter, facilitator, researcher and writer who, several years ago, co-authored the seminal report Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, as well as numerous other articles about student attendance. Her efforts led to the formation of Attendance Works, a national and state-level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence.

Chang has made it her mission over the years to work in the service of creating a fair and just society, one that values diversity and affords all people an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed. The daughter of Chinese-American immigrants growing up in the Midwest, Chang grew up with a sensitivity to the issues of race and class and social inclusion that have informed much of her work over the years.

Attendance-Works-logo-blueSo it’s not surprising that Chang understands the interplay between chronic absence and building healthy neighborhoods and communities. Her efforts and the focus of Attendance Works is to build greater awareness of the need to address chronic absence if we are to get at the root of creating equal opportunities for people in society to thrive and succeed. Chronic absence is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year for any reason, excused or unexcused. Nationwide, 1 out of 10 (as many as 7.5 million) students miss that much school. Rates are particularly high among low-income children.

I spoke with Chang about her involvement with Attendance Works and the connections she sees between chronic absence, health and prosperity in the United States.


Thriving Schools: How did you develop such a passion for the issues around school attendance and chronic absence?

Hedy Chang: I’ve always been cognizant of issues of race and class and their fundamental importance to shaping a fair and just society. Here in the U.S., we’ve always held to this notion of the American dream – if I work hard, I can create the conditions for a better life for myself and my children. But, the issues of inequality and wealth disparity are failing that dream. We are failing to provide pathways out of poverty for many people in the U.S.

I’ve had some pivotal experiences over the years that have helped me to see how chronic absence creates an entrenched underclass in our society that undermines success. Several years ago, I was asked by Ralph Smith, a senior vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation , to find out whether students missing too much school helped explain why students were reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Around the same time, my own kids were in elementary school. And I had come to be good friends with the mother of a small African American boy who was in school with my child. She was a really hard-working mother and her son was doing well in school by 1st grade. He was so smart and engaged and loved learning. But due to a lack of access to good health care, his mother died when the young boy reached 2nd grade. And I watched as I saw this little boy’s attendance dropped and soon he was no longer achieving the same rate of success. It was so frustrating to see this child, who had every ability as my own child to be successful, slip through the cracks. It made me understand that we’re loosing a generation if we don’t pay closer attention to the issues around chronic absence.


TS: Can you give our blog readers an overview of Attendance Works and the kinds of programs it directs?

HC:What Attendance Works does is to help make sure that school districts and communities throughout the country recognize the critical issues around chronic absence and take steps to improve attendance. We do this by building policy, practice, and research at multiple levels to help inform our understanding of what works.

People know at some level the importance of attendance, but we’re not tracking enough of where the kids are not showing up. Chronic absence can be an early warning sign that there are deeper challenges we need to address to make sure kids stay on a path of success.

We understand that are three major kinds of reasons why students don’t go to school.

1) First there are myths: People don’t realize that absence adds up. They don’t realize school attendance matters as much in kindergarten as it does in high school. They think that absence is only a problem if it’s unexcused. But parents sometimes keep kids home from school unnecessarily. We try to help parents and health providers understand when a child should be kept at home because of health issues and when they should recognize that there are deeper issues, other than health, that need to be addressed so that kids can show up to school.

2) Secondly, there are real barriers to attendance: These can be chronic health conditions like asthma, dental issues, lack of access to health care, poor transportation or an inability to get back and forth to school safely.

3) Thirdly, there is aversion: Children may have an aversion or anxieties about going to school that stem from a negative school environment or ineffective teaching or faculty and staff not engaging with the child.

Knowing what’s really going on, what we are dealing with in terms of chronic absence, will help us develop more effective ways of addressing those issues.


TS: Can you talk briefly about how you see chronic absence playing a role in affecting health and how health care providers, parents and teachers should work together to support attendance in schools?

HC: You have to work on chronic absence from multiple levels. You have to unpack what are the barriers at the school level and the individual level.

Health care providers are important allies. They can help send the message to parents and school leaders that if you want to protect the long term health of your kids, you need to recognize that your kid needs to go to school every day. Health providers can be advocates for addressing the larger barriers to health and well-being in schools.

It’s important for parents to recognize that absences add up. Going to school every day is critical to your child’s future. Parents need to do all that they can to making sure that they have the support they need to get their kids to school. They may need to lean on other parents to so support them in making sure their kids get to school. Parents also play an important role in helping to voice when there are bigger barriers at school that need to be addressed to support a child’s attendance.

And teachers are the first line of early intervention and prevention. They are often the first to notice if kids are showing up or starting to have patterns of absence. Teachers need to be careful not to be too quick to judge where the problems are coming from. Instead, they should work with children and their families to find solutions and to create an environment of support and care.

September is Attendance Awareness Month. Stay tuned to Thriving Schools as we explore more of the issues around chronic absence in schools and how to address them.

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