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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

To Combat Chronic Absenteeism, Look To Schools That Are More Successful At Engaging Learners

“There are kids who reject schooling, but as soon as you put them in an environment where their learning is relevant and interesting, they learn rapidly,” said Michael Strong, founder of The Socratic Experience.

Image: Students at The Field Academy learn geography

Many kids are not going to school. That’s the takeaway from the abundant headlines warning about the escalating epidemic of chronic absenteeism that has worsened since 2020. 

The 74’s Linda Jacobson reported earlier this fall on various efforts by school districts to address rising rates of chronic absenteeism. These include districts sending robocalls with the voice of an NFL player, educators bribing chronically absent children with rewards if they return to class, and schools activating “attendance clerks” to monitor students and conduct home visits. 

Millions of taxpayer dollars are funding these programs, including an injection of federal pandemic relief dollars.

But most coverage of the crisis has failed to ask the bigger, far more important question underpinning the attendance numbers: Why don’t kids want to go to school? 

“I think that school has long been perceived as meaningless by most kids,” said Michael Strong, longtime educator, author, and founder of the low-cost virtual school, The Socratic Experience. “COVID confirmed for many students that school is a meaningless waste of time.” 

It may also have confirmed the same for their parents, many of whom got a glimpse of classrooms and curriculum during prolonged school shutdowns and remote learning. 

Parents of children who are disengaged from school and refusing to attend are regularly referred to The Socratic Experience, which serves students ages 8 to 19. Other parents are looking for a more individualized educational experience for their children that prioritizes personal agency, and are attracted to the online school’s emphasis on “purpose-driven education.”

“There are kids who reject schooling, but as soon as you put them in an environment where their learning is relevant and interesting, they learn rapidly,” said Strong. At The Socratic Experience, that involves a learning approach tailored to each student’s needs and interests, frequent Socractic discussions with peers and adults about relevant, engaging topics, and creative, entrepreneurial projects.

Educators like Strong, who have long worked in the alternative education space where learners’ needs and interests are centered, may help to unlock the root causes of chronic absenteeism and reveal solutions. 

The Socratic Experience is one example of an out-of-system solution that can help disengaged students rekindle their joy of learning, but there are other entrepreneurial educators who are partnering with school districts to offer in-system answers. 

The Field Academy in Denver, Colorado is one such program. It’s a traveling high school that this fall is collaborating with the Aurora Public Schools and the Englewood Public Schools to address chronic absenteeism and credit recovery in creative ways. High school students who are not showing up to school, and who have either been referred to the truancy court or are at risk of being referred, are picked up in The Field Academy van each day to learn throughout the community in an immersive, personalized environment. 

“I was attracted to the idea of disruption within the public system,” said co-founder and executive director, Anna Graves, who spent about a decade in outdoor and wilderness education before turning her attention to public schools. “The first school I tried to open was a charter school,” said Graves. “I thought, this is great, we can do some really amazing things in this work. And then I realized that, actually, we’re still inside four walls. We’re not at a place where this actually feels innovative to me, and it also does not feel applicable to most people’s lives.”

It was her search for out-of-the-box education solutions that would be more relevant and engaging for students that led Graves to see how The Field Academy could serve low-income, chronically absent students. Graves’s current students, who are still enrolled in district schools, are all about a year-and-a-half behind in credits due to absenteeism. Although they are in high school, they are reading at an elementary school level. 

A Field Academy 10th grader pursues English credits at the Denver Museum of Art (Anna Graves)

Using creative, community-based credit recovery techniques, The Field Academy makes learning interesting and applicable to the teenagers’ lives. Daily learning may include rock climbing and related lessons around right angles and geometry. A trip to a bike shop resulted in a bike-building project that incorporated math and language arts. One student is really into cars, so the van stops at an auto body shop to allow for observation and hands-on experience. English class takes place at an art museum, with students writing and talking about pieces on the wall.

Graves explained that students who rarely attended school before this fall are happy and eager to be picked up by The Field Academy van each day. She said that her students grew disillusioned with conventional schooling, and especially its coercive, often punitive, environment. Last year, one student only went to school 14 days out of the entire school year. Now, he is excited to learn through The Field Academy. 

“I think the rise in chronic absenteeism is telling us that the system isn’t working for most students, and students are voting with their feet in the same way that we do with any product that we don’t like,” said Graves. “Honestly, I think that schools are getting really strong feedback, and that is why there’s a possibility for a lot of creativity in this moment.”

This article has been republished with permission from The 74.