African American Student Attendance and Engagement: Challenges and Solutions

This is the second in a four-part blog post series offering strategies for increasing educational equity by reducing chronic absence.
By Maria Casey and Helen Duffy, Attendance WorksAttendance Works Logo
Though our nation has made progress in increasing educational opportunities for African American students, educational inequities persist, and disparities in attendance, engagement, and learning are on the rise. These disparities continue despite the tremendous strengths and assets found in the cultures and traditions of African American communities. While they may appear daunting, the problems that African American students face in our schools are not intractable.

A Different Perspective and a Shift in the Narrative

In this blog, we provide examples of two schools that are debunking negative perceptions and stereotypes of African American students to demonstrate what is possible when schools provide quality educational opportunities.

Help Students Reach Their Full Potential

At West Seattle Elementary School in Seattle, WA, where two thirds of enrolled students are African American, school leaders and teachers lead with the assumption that the educator’s role is to help students realize their full potential. Before students enroll, Principal McCowan-Conyers meets with each new family and asks them to share their hopes and dreams for their children and communicates the high expectations she has for every student. She is intentional about hiring staff who reflect the school’s demographics and can understand the lived realities of families.[1]

Many of the students are refugees from East African countries who have experienced trauma. McCowan-Conyers was the first principal in Seattle to replace a counseling position with a licensed social worker who provides families with connections to community partners and acts as a family advocate. Once a week, McCowan-Conyers meets with the school counselor, social worker, nurse, head teacher, and secretary to review data and identify students who might benefit from additional follow up support when needs arise. These individuals work in partnership with families to identify solutions to attendance barriers, such as a walking school bus for students to walk to school safely together, gas cards for families who need that support, and a principal-led school “state of the union” for families in which McCowan-Conyers invites their suggestions for things school administrators, educators, and staff can do better.

Key to success is offering challenging, engaging academic and enrichment programs. Through the STEAM program, students learn coding with the help of industry experts and can join extracurricular activities such as robotics, chess, and an adventure club. A partnership with the local YMCA offers students after-school programs and homework support. These activities open new learning experiences for students.

Work to address chronic absence still needs to be done at West Seattle Elementary, which had an overall chronic absence rate in 2022/23 of 41.2 percent, McCowan-Conyers says. However, the absenteeism rate for African American students was comparatively better, with 34.2 percent of African American students chronically absent.

Build Trusting Relationships Among Students and Between Adults and Students

Building trusting relationships among students and between adults and students is a central component of student success at O’Farrell Charter High School. Studies have found that when students have at least one relationship with a caring adult, students feel more motivated, have a greater sense of self-efficacy, and meet with greater academic success. One study of a City Year program that places teams of AmeriCorp members in under-resourced schools found improvements in student social–emotional skills and academic outcomes in those schools. The study found that increases in social-emotional skills contribute to improved attendance.

By partnering with community-based or national organizations such as City Year, schools can help students build adult–student relationships. Schools can also offer time during the school day for students and staff to build those relationships. In elementary schools, this might mean creating routines and rituals during morning meetings to check in with students and acknowledge students who are absent. In secondary school, it might mean incorporating a regular class period into the school day when students and adults can build trust and community.

One case study of a school in San Diego provides a promising example.[2] In 2022/23, students at O’Farrell Charter High School in San Diego had an overall chronic absence rate of 9.6 percent, with 12 percent of African American students chronically absent, which is 3 times less than the state average. In this school, all incoming 9th grade students are assigned a home base teacher who stays with them throughout their 4 years of high school. Home base teachers meet with students every day for 25 minutes, engaging in activities designed to help them learn about each other, strengthen positive social–emotional skills, and build a sense of community.

Home base teachers are also responsible for building positive relationships with families. Building these relationships takes time, commitment, and persistence, particularly with those who have been historically underserved by schools. Home base teachers monitor grades and attendance and can intervene well before the end of a marking period. If students are sent out of another class for disciplinary reasons, the home base teacher works with the student and teacher to resolve the situation. Though these are not typical responsibilities of traditional high school teachers, seeing the impact of their efforts is convincing evidence for teachers who are reluctant to take on this role.

Take a Systems Approach

District offices have an important role to play in supporting schools to interrupt chronic absence, and it is essential that superintendents and school boards are aligned in their commitment to practices that support African American students and families. When district and school leaders are committed to examining data that reveal persistent failures to provide opportunities for African American students to flourish, those leaders must confront questions that may be uncomfortable. For example, Madera Unified School District in California’s Central Valley conducted a student survey that revealed differences in students’ experiences in school, with African American students consistently reporting a higher number of negative experiences than their peers. Student focus groups revealed a similar pattern. After confronting those patterns, district and school staff joined students and families to create a Student Champion workgroup. That workgroup developed a Student Bill of Rights, which was later approved by the school board.

The Student Bill of Rights spells out the kinds of experiences all students should have in district schools and mandates that anti-bias training be provided to every staff person in the district. Doing this work took courage and persistence. Although Madera’s chronic absence rate in 2022/23 was 27.3 percent, the Student Bill of Rights is a positive step toward mutual accountability that may help improve student attendance and engagement.

Focus on Positive Conditions for Learning

These stories demonstrate that when schools and districts intentionally focus on positive conditions for learning, African American students can flourish.
A four circle Venn diagram is used to show the four factors that create positive conditions for learning. Adult and student well-being and emotional competence; Academic challenge and engagement; belonging, connection, and support; and physical emotional health and safety. At the center, relationships are essential to positive conditions for learning.

© Attendance Works,

It is also critical that school leaders address barriers to attendance and engage students and families as partners in shaping expectations for school experiences. This begins with building trusting relationships with students and families and eliciting from them what they need to engage and succeed in school. Examining data and having the courage to act when those data reveal inequities are important first steps in addressing challenges.

Implementing a Tiered System of Supports can help schools identify the right strategies. This begins with communicating the importance of regular attendance, offering a wide range of after-school activities, or providing all students with a “home base,” as O’Farrell Charter High School does.

It is also important to implement culturally appropriate universal Tier 1 supports, like offering warm and welcoming greetings when students enter school and displaying artifacts in hallways and classrooms that celebrate the diversity of ethnic and cultural groups in the school. When chronic absence rates are similar for all student groups, it is a sign that Tier 1 supports should be expanded or deepened. When chronic absence is high among African American students, it may indicate that those Tier 1 supports are not designed to meet their needs.

For students and families experiencing greater challenges, schools might implement Tier 2 strategies such as a walking school bus or gas cards. When Tiers 1 and 2 supports prove inadequate, schools may benefit from partnering with community-based organizations to provide additional support on a case-by-case basis.

Problems that seem intractable are problems we can solve. We must be intentional, courageous, and confident that our schools can serve and support our African American students in more ways that are holistic and responsive.

[1] Blazar, D. (2024). Why Black teachers matter (EdWorkingPaper: 21-501). Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

[2] Johnson, J., Jr., Uline, C.L., & Munro, S. J., Jr. (2023). When Black students excel: How schools can engage and empower Black students. Routledge.