March 27, 2024

Attendance Is a Huge Problem, But There Is No Easy Solution

By Jennifer Bertram

There is a clear correlation between attendance rates and school achievement. We know that the more time children spend in school, the more opportunities they have to learn material, get support from teachers and staff, access free breakfast and lunch, and deepen relationships with adults and other children. As the problem of chronic and excessive absenteeism has worsened since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so too have proficiency levels in reading and math for Minnesota’s children and youth. Why are so many kids missing so many days of school and how can we turn it around? I believe the answer is not as simple as some might think.

As a parent of two children with disabilities who have both exhibited strong school refusal tendencies over the years, I know this problem of absenteeism all too well. And I also know that it is very tempting to blame parents for being irresponsible or unwilling to get their child to school. While parents (and guardians) do shoulder the burden of ensuring their child regularly attends school, the matter of excessive absenteeism is much more complex than uncooperative parents. According to the most recent data from the Minnesota Department of Education, over 30% of students in Minnesota were chronically absent—they missed 10% or more of the school year—in 2022. Chronic absenteeism is worse among Black and Indigenous children, children with disabilities, children experiencing homelessness, and children who identify as LGBTQIA.

Parents and guardians are responsible for getting children to school—up to age 12, they can be charged with educational neglect if their child misses more than three days for elementary school and seven days of middle school for an unexcused reason. Unless a parent or guardian notifies the school of an absence with an excuse that is allowable, any absence is considered unexcused. Children older than 12 can be charged with truancy for excessive absences. However, there is a balance between a parent’s responsibility to require their child to attend school and a school’s responsibility to ensure that the school is safe, engaging, and appropriate for all its students. We must consider the challenges facing students that are affecting attendance, including insufficient mental health support at school (social workers, counselors, school-linked mental health providers), school violence (fights between students and the ever-present threat of mass shootings), and drugs (bathrooms are often locked throughout the day so kids won’t do drugs). Further, children with disabilities often have unmet needs due to inadequate training for teachers and staff, insufficient resources to address their needs, and larger schools with increasing class sizes that make for an overstimulating experience. My own children, both of whom have neurodevelopmental disorders and have been identified as gifted, find school tiring, boring, overstimulating, loud, and difficult to navigate day after day. Until we fully address these and other challenges that impact regular school attendance, we must use caution in assigning blame or charging parents or children with truancy when many other factors that contribute to the problem of absenteeism are unaddressed.

Minnesota Law – Truancy

Minnesota statute enables county attorney offices to establish truancy intervention programs for youth over age 12. Some school districts and charter schools have established a school attendance review board that may schedule meetings with parents and students who are truant to identify and refer to community services and establish a plan to improve attendance. If attendance does not improve, the child will be referred to the county attorney.

Intervention Programs

Truancy intervention programs operate within county attorney offices throughout Minnesota to help identify causes for absenteeism and determine whether public or community support services or programs would help address basic needs and improve attendance. As the legislature considers a bill that would improve data collection on absenteeism, it would be useful to also collect and analyze data from these intervention programs to determine their success rate in addressing issues related to school attendance and improving outcomes for students receiving services through these programs.

Hennepin County’s 90-day truancy intervention program, Be@School is designed to help remove students’ barriers to regular attendance at school to increase at-school days. The county contracts with several organizations that provide case management services to address barriers to attendance and connect families with resources.

The Ramsey County truancy intervention program School Attendance Matters (SAM) operates in much the same way, as do other programs across the state. But do they work?

Minneapolis Public Schools introduced the Stable Homes, Stable Schools program to help reduce homelessness among its highly mobile elementary student population in an effort to stabilize them in a school and improve academic outcomes. Families can receive rent and utility assistance if eligible and be added to the public housing waiting list if a longer-term housing affordability solution is needed. Similar programs have been established in other districts to address the widespread housing instability issue for students in schools across Minnesota, but the housing affordability issue is more widespread than any of these programs can serve, and the criteria for eligibility can make these programs difficult to access.


I struggled to find any data that provided insights into intervention programs’ effectiveness at reducing absenteeism or addressing barriers that factor into attendance issues. There was an evaluation conducted by the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare for the Be@School program and its efficacy with elementary students about a decade ago. It found that the 90-day timeline for case management was not only insufficient to address some of the most challenging issues facing families that impact attendance – transportation and housing, or more generally, poverty – but that the case managers had little power to affect these barriers. It also found that most children did not get referred a second time to Be@School whether or not they participated in case management. And there was a significant difference in the odds of engagement depending on race, and depending on the contracted organization providing services, some of whom offered culturally-specific services and were found to be more successful in engaging families in the program. The recommendations from the report included a longer intervention period, improving access to family contact details for greater chance of engagement, and prioritizing culturally-specific referrals. But will these recommended practice shifts improve outcomes? Attendance issues are only getting worse, despite these programs.

Minnesota Alliance with Youth recently released a report titled Chronic Absenteeism: A National and Local Challenge this spring with recommendations that include increased family engagement, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), and Check and Connect increased caring adults and mentors, data-driven early warning systems, and fair attendance practices. All these point to improved relationships between children, parents, and school staff, improved focus on school discipline and climate, and more attention to the needs of children and families in today’s post-COVID reality.


A bill being considered in the legislature this year, HF 3827, would require districts to report disaggregated data by race on attendance to assist the Minnesota Department of Education in gaining a deeper understanding of the problem.

I believe the data that would be collected if this bill is passed would provide greater insight to the Minnesota Department of Education and schools throughout our state to help inform future policy decisions to improve attendance. But I ask that MDE and our policymakers use caution in using this information to assign blame to principals, parents, and the children themselves while neglecting the many underlying issues facing schools, families, teachers, and others who interface with a complex underfunded educational system that needs significant resources to bring teaching practices, curricula, and school formats up to date to meet the needs of today’s children.

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