A sign reads “Anger is the only one letter short of Danger,” in the room where students wait to be either returned to school or have a parent pick them up at the Atlanta Public Schools Truancy Office, in this photo taken in 2011. ACJ FILE

Schools try electronic messages to reduce absenteeism

School districts have a powerful tool to keep students on track to graduate, but they haven’t been using it.

A new study in metro Atlanta finds that tailored electronic messages helped to curb excessive absenteeism.

The messages told parents both the number of days their child missed and how that compared to the absence rate for the student’s peers.

The messages basically said, “Look, your kid was absent this many times and that’s out of the norm,” said Joy Mordica, the director of research for the DeKalb County School District.

It got parents’ attention. The likelihood of chronic absenteeism dropped by 7.8% on average for each child whose parent was contacted.

The study was orchestrated by Georgia State University, in a new collaboration with several metro Atlanta school districts. The university designed the study and the messages, and the school districts sent them to more than 8,900 parents last year.

A sample message read like this: “John missed 9 school days so far this year — more absences than 90% of his peers. Students with fewer absences are more likely to graduate.”

Schools, for the most part, are already paying for the tools that sent these messages. They use the same systems to warn parents to keep their children home for a snowstorm or to pick them up early for a water main break.

The tailoring can be automated and executed at little or no additional cost, said Jonathan Isaac Smith, an assistant professor of economics at GSU and a co-author of the study.

He and his colleagues got the idea from prior studies elsewhere. One that used similar messages delivered by mail was less effective. Smith theorizes that the medium matters: perhaps email and text is more successful “because it’s immediate, it’s salient,” he said.

The study was one of the first in a new collaboration between GSU and five metro Atlanta school districts: Atlanta, and Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Four of them (GSU wouldn’t identify which four, but DeKalb responded to a request for comment) participated in this experiment. The schools chose the subject, then helped the researchers develop a proposal. Students on track to miss 10% of the school year (most had missed at least five days by last fall) were split into two groups — one with parents who were not sent the electronic messages and one with parents who were.

In the process, all involved discovered a big problem: Only half the group that was targeted to get messages actually did. The schools learned they didn’t have current contact information for many parents.

Mordica said those parents probably weren’t getting the mass alerts either. The district now recognizes that contact information should be updated two or three times a year rather than annually, she said.

DeKalb hopes to learn more from the collaboration. Numerous other studies are already underway, including one on teacher retention and another on the effect of refugee students on their classrooms.

Maggie Reeves, senior director of Georgia Policy Labs, the university department overseeing the studies, said foundation grants are funding the work so schools can “have research that has impact on peoples’ lives.”

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