Indiana lawmakers are adamant that moving bills to help improve student literacy and bolster career readiness is high-priority in the upcoming legislative session. But their efforts could end up fruitless if the state can’t solve another issue plaguing schools: Hoosier kids aren’t showing up to the classroom.
The latest Indiana data shows that about 40% of students statewide missed 10 or more school days last year, and nearly one in five were “chronically absent” for at least 18 days.
Student absences have been on the rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Indiana and across the nation. Although Indiana’s latest numbers show slight improvements, absentee rates during the 2022-23 school year were still 8% higher than before the pandemic.
Educators around the state say the reasons for absences vary, but family challenges some students face at home, along with hard-to-break tendencies to keep kids home when even mildly unwell — a habit borne out of the pandemic — are key factors. And schools are getting creative to try to combat the growing problem.
Education experts note that being absent as few as three days out of the school year affects test scores and overall academic performance. Getting to school every day also helps kids develop a routine and increases their influential engagement time with adults.
The student demographic groups with the largest gaps in state language arts and math testing since the pandemic are more likely to be chronically absent.
To that end, Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, along with Republican state legislative leaders, have said that high rates of absenteeism are likely contributing to the state’s dismal literacy rates. One in five third-graders currently lacks foundational reading skills, which Jenner and others are calling “a crisis.”
Lawmakers and local officials are in tandem that part of the response needs to include more targeted efforts to get kids showing up to school consistently.
But agreeing on new policies could prove more challenging. Some ideas emphasize increased relationship-building between schools and parents, and directing more resources at schools to help hire additional support staff, for example. Other possible solutions are more punitive, however, and could see local courts get more involved in compelling students to go to school.
“Schools are working really hard to improve attendance, and we’re struggling,” said Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, director of public education, CEO at Muncie Community Schools. “We’re trying hard, but we still have a lot of work yet to do — this is something we all have to combat together.”
What is — and is not — chronic absenteeism?
According to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), roughly 221,000 Hoosier students were considered chronically absent during the 2022-23 academic year.
More than 400,000 students missed at least 10 days of school — which, per Indiana statute — made them “habitually absent.”
A school day is considered missed if a student is there for less than half of the day.
The Indiana Code specifically defines chronic absenteeism as being absent 18 or more days within a school year for any reason. That’s different from “habitual truancy,” however, which is defined as being absent 10 days or more from school within a school year “without being excused or without being absent under a parental request that has been filed with the school.”
Under the “compulsory education” laws in Indiana, children must regularly attend school from the time they’re seven years old until they turn 18, with some exceptions.
But unless they’re excused, students who cut class too often could end up under a juvenile court’s supervision. Absence build-ups could also prompt prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges against Hoosier parents, given that they are legally responsible for making sure their children go to school.
Generally, it’s up to local school districts to decide when students’ absences are excused, though state law requires schools to excuse absences for certain reasons, including illness, mental or physical incapacity, required court appearances, helping in elections, service as a page for the general assembly, participating in the state fair and up to 120 minutes per week of religious instruction.
It’s currently up to each Indiana county prosecutor to decide how to enforce absence and truancy laws.
In a post-COVID world, more kids stay home
Indiana fares better than most other states for chronic absenteeism, but in the last three years, the rate of Hoosier students who have been chronically absent more than doubled compared to before the pandemic.
Indiana’s chronic absentee rates have especially shot up since the 2018-19 school year, when just 11.2% met that definition.
The rate rose to 18.5% in 2020-21 — the first year after the pandemic — and topped out at 21.1% in the 2021-22 school year, according to state data.
The 2022-23 data indicates that 19.3% of students were chronically absent from school.
Black students saw the largest percentage of chronic absenteeism of any racial or ethnic group last year. Only White and Asian students had below the state average.
English learners and students eligible for free and reduced lunch additionally experience greater-than-average rates of chronic absenteeism, per state records.
Still, chronic absenteeism was higher in some schools than in others. In 84 school buildings, 50% of students were chronically absent. Another 270 schools recorded one out of every three students as chronically absent, while 547 schools had one in four students.
Statewide, 1,651 Hoosier schools had at least one out of every 10 students marked as chronically absent, according to state data.
Rates were typically highest in high-poverty urban school districts and charter schools, while suburban schools reported lower rates.
Gary Community Schools had the highest chronic absenteeism rate among the state’s public school districts at about 66%. District officials declined the Indiana Capital Chronicle’s request to comment on student absences.
Chronic absenteeism was higher than 40% in Muncie and South Bend schools and over 30% in Anderson, Richmond, Indianapolis Public Schools and at least two dozen other districts.
Multiple rural districts had high rates, too, including 43.2% in Cannelton, 37.5% in Madison and 32.1% in Medora.
High rates of absenteeism, especially chronic absenteeism, has been an ongoing concern in South Bend Schools, and challenges have “spurred” since COVID-19, said Diamond Robinson, the district’s assistant superintendent of academics.
“Chronic absences have various reasons and contributing factors, and these can often be complex and interconnected,” she said, noting that common factors keeping students out of class include chronic health issues and family responsibilities — such as caring for younger siblings or dealing with crises at home. Families facing financial difficulties might also encounter obstacles like a lack of transportation or unstable housing, making it challenging for students to attend school consistently.
The demand for wraparound services with local agencies “is great, and has increased,” but “community resources and agency manpower” has not increased with the rate of demand, Robinson added.
As a result, “some families are not prioritizing education due to overwhelming needs within their household,” she continued.
Robinson said, too, that students’ boredom or feeling disconnected from school activities can lead to a lack of motivation, making them more prone to skipping classes. Students who struggle academically may also avoid school “to escape the challenges they face in the classroom.”
Kwiatkowski, who leads Muncie’s school system, said further that families are “far more comfortable,” post-COVID, keeping their students at home.
“If someone is sick, we still don’t want them in school. But before, when we had days where we may not feel our best or you have a cold, you persevere through it. And during the pandemic, nobody tried to persevere through it. We all stayed home,” she said. “I believe that has been a major struggle for us to get that reversed. Now, it’s changing that culture of, okay, you have sniffles, you can still be in school — we don’t need you to stay home for a lot of days anymore.”
“We let students stay home and then they continued to do okay in school. And now we’re saying we need you here, and we have a lot of ground to make up, and you need to be in school and to be present,” Kwiatkowski continued.
Regardless, students who miss school often tend to live in poverty, said Brad Meadows, assistant principal at Anderson High School, and with that “comes a number of challenges which make it more difficult for students to attend school regularly.”
All about ‘relationships’ — and incentives
Less surprising, chronic absenteeism rates have remained mostly lower in suburban and more affluent districts like Carmel Clay — at 8.4% — and in Zionsville, which recorded a 7.3% rate of chronic absenteeism.
School leadership in the Hanover Community School Corporation, which had a chronic absenteeism rate of just 4.7% last year, said regular communication with parents and close monitoring of missing students has helped keep absenteeism at bay.
“Usually, it’s the same kids who are out. Being a smaller school helps — it’s a little bit more of a personal touch. We know our kids. Whereas I’ve worked in a bigger school before, it’s harder to know them all,” said Hanover Central High School assistant principal Brian Parker. “I think the key word here is relationships. It starts on the ground floor.”
Another assistant principal, Lori Bathurst, said attendance letters are sent to parents after a student accumulates five unexcused absences. Principal Tami Kepshire added that students who show early signs of struggling attendance are called in — along with their families — to meet with school administrators “right away, before there becomes an issue.”
Tying privileges like prom attendance and being allowed to drive to school additionally encourages good attendance, Hanover officials said.
Incentives have been key to lowering chronic absenteeism rates in Clarksville Community Schools, as well.
Instead of primarily focusing on “punishments” for absent students, Clarksville schools are directing efforts around “good behavior,” said district spokesperson Brian Shaw.
Clarksville students who participate in co-curricular and extracurricular activities tend to have better attendance than those who don’t, Shaw continued. Recognizing that, the district “has been making a really big push” to get more students involved in clubs and sports. New athletic teams and school-based service groups have already launched this school year.
Shaw said absenteeism rates for the district’s brick-and-mortar schools — which averaged 32% in the 2023-2023 academic year — are already showing signs of improvement. Still, he said some parents “have gotten used to the leniency” around absences that was offered during the pandemic. Part of the district’s attendance campaign now aims “to educate parents about how important attendance is.”
“I think that is one of the challenges that we run into most — parents being educated on chronic absenteeism — because we found that a lot of parents don’t even know how to define that,” Shaw said. “They don’t know what that means.”
In Anderson, district schools prioritize bussing and offer free breakfasts and lunches to all enrolled students, Meadows said.
Nearby Muncie schools have rolled out an even larger initiative.
Kwiatkowski said every school in the district employs a “student assistance coordinator” whose main responsibility is to improve attendance. They communicate with families about their child’s attendance and “take proactive approaches with students.”
“We have our list of students who are chronically absent, so every day, they’ll go to the classrooms of all those students to have a check-in and say, ‘So glad you’re here,’ just as another way of connecting with that student,” Kwiatkowski said. The coordinators use other forms of motivation, too, like organizing McDonald’s lunches for kids who show up to school for two weeks straight, and offering an outdoor camping experience for good and improved attendance.
Six “family navigators” additionally work across the district to help reduce barriers to kids getting to school.
“If the student needs shoes, if they don’t have a winter coat, if they need an alarm clock, if mom is working late and has trouble waking up in the morning, we find other ways of being able to help get that student up to be able to get out to catch the bus,” Kwiatkowski said.
Pending grant dollars, Muncie schools are hoping to work more closely with county courts to work with families “proactively,” but not necessarily punitively, Kwiatkowski said.
What needs to happen next?
State education officials maintain that absenteeism is a problem without a single solution. And local school administrators agree.
Even so, some members of the State Board of Education have positioned that new penalties should be put in place to compel students back into the classroom, although no specific consequences have been shared publicly yet.
Lawmakers seem to be taking a similar stance.
Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray said during a legislative conference last week that “truancy,” specifically, is on the General Assembly’s radar. He expects bills will be filed to address attendance issues but did not provide specifics.
“I mean, if you’re talking about a second or third grader, you’re primary talking about a parenting problem,” Bray said, emphasizing the need for more wraparound services and involvement from Indiana’s Department of Child Services (DCS) and local courts “to work with those parents, making them understand how important it is to come to school.”
“It probably might not be as much of a parent problem when they’re 16 or 17 years old … so you have juvenile delinquency, where you can get the kids into court and have the judges motivate them and work with them so that they understand the importance of finishing up school.”
But Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that works to advance student success by reducing chronic absence, said an emphasis on truancy tends to trigger “much more punitive responses” that aren’t always in the best interest of the student.
“We have to shift to look at all absences. We want to understand their impact. We want to take prevention problem-solving approaches. Because we actually know that chronic absences are connected, for example, with trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and the worst thing you can do in that case is to say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Chang said. “You need to say, ‘What’s happening?’ and ask how to cultivate family and student engagement in order to understand the issues and come up with meaningful solutions.”
Chang additionally cautioned policymakers from labeling all chronically absent kids as “truant” or “unexcused.”
“How we label absences — whether they’re excused or unexcused — can deeply affect a child’s experience. When they’re unexcused, kids can be denied homework, denied the chance to make up for what happened in class, and that can actually start to shape a more negative experience with school and then lead to more legal consequences,” Chang said. “And sometimes the difference between what’s excused and unexcused can be a little arbitrary. If two kids were sick, but one didn’t have health care and doesn’t come with a note, then they’re the one marked unexcused.”
Teachers are also raising flags about chronic absenteeism.
Educators who spoke to the Indiana Capital Chronicle detailed how chronic absenteeism disrupts the flow of instruction in the classroom. They pointed to additional time that’s needed to help absent students catch up, which can slow down the pace of classrooms overall.
Chronic absenteeism also makes it difficult to provide consistent support and personalized attention to individual students, and further hinders teachers’ ability to accurately gauge whether students are understanding and mastering curriculum.
Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) president Keith Gambill doubled down last month that addressing literacy deficiencies and student disciplinary issues in the classroom will have to include responses to chronic absences. ISTA holds that identifying and addressing the core obstacles preventing students from getting to school should come first.
“But we can’t do that when Indiana has one of the worst student-to-counselor ratios,” Gambill said. “There just isn’t the capacity in many of our schools to be able to identify the issues with our students, and we need to make sure that we have enough counselors and school psychologists in place to help.”
As the state looks for solutions, some school officials said they’re also worried that families with chronically absent students might find it easier to withdraw kids to home school.
“By doing that, they no longer have to follow a school attendance policy,” Meadows said. “We believe that providing the same level of oversight to students that are homeschooled, or on virtual, that are in public school would go a long way in deterring families from leaving their public school and the added educational and social supports that come along with it.
More resources — and more state dollars
So far, at the state level, an “Early Warning Dashboard” is in the works to direct resources to at-risk students. The system will be piloted for some schools this academic year. IDOE officials said the goal is for the dashboard to be ready for all schools by the start of the 2024-25 school year.
Included in the dashboard — which will be connected to Indiana’s existing GPS dashboard — will be data on attendance, as well as information about which students are at risk. Granular data could provide details about absences at the individual classroom and teacher levels.
Multiple school officials from across the state said increased dollars to traditional public schools would help, too. The funds can help employ more attendance-focused staff, as well as teachers — meaning decreased class sizes and more one-on-one time with struggling kids.
Hanover Central administrators said they hope lawmakers will additionally provide more support to state agencies, like DCS, and local juvenile courts.
“Students who we do have issues with — there’s nobody holding people accountable,” said Kepshire, the high school principal. “I think statewide, if we had something that maybe gave the outside agencies more bite, that will help a lot with chronic absenteeism.”
Shaw, in Clarksville, echoed calls for added resources directed at legal “partners.”
“There’s so much else going on in the court systems … and then attendance sort of takes a backseat,” Shaw said. “That makes it difficult to really rein in some of these rogue attendance practices.”
Jenner said she doesn’t have any firm policy recommendations yet but is confident that cracking down on chronic absenteeism will be paramount to upcoming policy discussions around literacy. But because 2024’s reconvening is a non-budget session, lawmakers are unlikely to approve policy that requires new dollars to be dispersed.
“I feel pretty clear and confident about where we need to go with reading. Chronic absenteeism — that’s a little bit trickier because there’s not as much of a roadmap nationwide,” Jenner said. “If children are missing over three-and-a-half weeks of school … then educators can do everything they can, but if the child’s not at school, it’s hard to get them to that place of reading, proficient in math, etc.”
“That’s where we’re really going to need the partnership with parents and families to make sure kids are at school … we’ve got to turn this Titanic around,” she continued. “We really need a solution found urgently because we need these students at school every day.”
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.