Students eating lunch at a table in the cafeteria with a teacher.

Schools in New York State have a number of top agenda items for this new school year; Mental health, security, failing literacy rates being among them. Educators say there’s another major issue they need to conquer just as urgently: chronic absenteeism. Over the last two years, some districts saw less than 70% of students consistently.

“Yeah, I think attendance is is a life skill that students have to learn at a young age” says Donna Marie Norton.

School attendance for all ages is on Donna Norton’s radar. As executive director of data accountability and school improvement for the North Syracuse Central School District, she knows that chronic absenteeism is a major issue for her district and schools statewide.

“From kindergarten, preschool on up, going to school is a habit that students should get into it leads to success," said Norton.

Norton says chronic absenteeism is when students miss ten percent or more of the number of days they’re enrolled in school. Pandemic spikes show that many districts had at least thirty percent of the student body chronically absent. She says this was due to the pandemic, anxiety and school fear. They have a plan to improve attendance.

“It's actually a personal phone call by a staff member. We start with attendance aides, but then we move to social workers. Your classroom teacher will call you and tell you how much we miss you and you know, we want you to come back to school. So we found that to be very successful. We've also hired many more mental health practitioners who are really helpful to students because if a student isn't comfortable, and doesn't feel safe, they can't learn," said Norton.

Reducing chronic absenteeism is key to improving graduation rates.

“Most of the schools that are working towards it all the way from elementary on up, have targeted attendance as a big issue. Again, get them to school, they'll learn and they'll graduate and be successful. If they don't come. It's almost impossible,” she says.

Successful students Norton says rely on their consistent participation in the varied enrichments school provides

“If kids are present in school, they learn better. They need to be here. They need to socialize with their peers. They need to meet with their teachers. They need to interact face to face for education to truly happen,” adds Norton.

Face-to-face interaction to correct a chronic education problem.

"It's about people. We're in a people business, it's about relationships, it's about connection. Kids will come to school if they know there's an adult that is dying to see them," said Norton.

Norton reminds parents that positive messaging about school and education in the home can boost students' confidence and commitment to good attendance. If your family is struggling with student attendance issues, call your Schools District office for support.