Appleton students are still struggling with attendance. Mental health is a main reason, but not the only one

APPLETON - Fewer students in the Appleton Area School District were chronically absent the first half of this school year compared to last year, but attendance is still an issue and mental health is making it hard for many students to establish regular attendance.

District administrators shared attendance data from the first semester with the school board at a work session Wednesday morning. The meeting provided an update on the district goal of reducing the number of students missing 10% of school — about 18 days.

While the district was able to bring chronic absenteeism rates down at the elementary, middle and high school levels, the habitual truancy rate — all or part of five days unexcused in a semester — increased across all three levels.

“We are seeing some improvements overall with chronic absenteeism, but we’re still not necessarily happy with the results, which is why we will continue to make this a priority,” Sheree Garvey, assistant superintendent of school services, told The Post-Crescent in a phone interview.

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The reasons for poor attendance are unique to each student, Garvey said, so the district has to offer a range of supports to try to address each student's barriers to attendance. She emphasized the importance of educating students, families and the community on the importance of regular attendance for students.

The district met its goal to improve chronic absenteeism

Last August, the district announced its goal to reduce chronic absenteeism — missing 10% or more of school — by 3% at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Here’s a breakdown of that goal by grade level.

  • Elementary: 29% → 26%

  • Middle: 23% → 20%

  • High: 43% → 40%

Here’s a breakdown of where those numbers stand after the first semester of 2022-23.

  • Elementary: 18.9%

  • Middle: 17.4%

  • High: 22.8%

But truancy was worse last year

A key difference between absenteeism and truancy is whether an absence is excused. Garvey said an absence is marked unexcused when the district is unable to make contact with the family. Habitual truancy is also measured by semester. Five or more unexcused absences have to occur in one semester for a student to be considered truant.

Garvey said the district makes a “tremendous” effort to contact a family if their student is absent, but if they don’t make contact an absence is labeled unexcused. The district can update it if contact is eventually made with the family.

This year's first semester truancy rates are higher than any other first semester going back five years. Truancy data from the 2020-21 school year were excluded from the district's presentation.

Here’s a look at how truancy rates changed from the first semester of 2021-22 to the first semester of 2022-23.

  • Elementary: 3% → 6.4%

  • Middle: 15% → 23%

  • High: 31% → 38%

When a student is truant, there is a meeting with the family to create an improvement plan. Garvey said the school, family and student should walk away from that meeting with an idea of what they need to do differently to improve attendance.

If that doesn’t work, the student could get referred to Outagamie County Youth and Family Services. Those referrals tend to spike around 10th grade, according to the district's report to the board. More than half of the 76 students who were referred to the county last school year identified mental health concerns.

Middle school can be a hard time for attendance

Even though the middle school level saw improvements in absenteeism, its gains weren't as big as the other grade levels.

Garvey said middle school can be a tumultuous time for students, and that can be reflected in attendance. She hopes the district’s plan to move sixth grade to the middle school level will increase connections and give students a greater sense of belonging by giving them an extra year to settle in.

Middle school is also when many students see mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression start to really emerge, Garvey said, which could contribute to attendance issues.

How does Appleton's attendance compare to the rest of the state?

In the 2018-19 school year, Appleton's absenteeism rate was 7.1%, better than the state average of 12.9%, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

Even in the first school year colored by the pandemic, 2019-20, Appleton’s absenteeism rate of 8.5% was better than the state’s 12.9%.

During the 2020-21 school year, though, absenteeism in Appleton skyrocketed to almost 21%, outpacing the 16% state average.

The most current data available from the state Department of Public Instruction is from last school year. It shows the statewide absenteeism rate continued to climb to 22%. Likewise, absenteeism across the Appleton district also rose, to 26%.

There isn’t just one solution, but for some, Check & Connect works

The district used to address attendance issues through a school-based truancy court that involved the county court system. But the truancy court was discontinued in January 2019 after the court and its lead judge, Outagamie County Circuit Judge Mark McGinnis, came under scrutiny after some of the correctional methods became public.

In 2018, The Post-Crescent reported there were concerns about McGinnis's legal handling of students' truancy cases, students being sent to shelter care and the tenor of the judge's interactions with the students.

After that, the district needed to find new ways to manage students with too many unexcused absences or chronic attendance issues. The pandemic complicated that even more.

More than four years later, the district is still working out the right combination of solutions that will address the multitude of reasons why students miss school.

“We believe a lot of our attendance practices are working for some of our students,” but not for others, Garvey said.

A new intervention the district started this school year is called Check & Connect. It partners students with poor attendance and other warning signs of disengaging from school with a trained mentor. They work to create an attendance plan and goals for the student.

Mentors meet with students for at least 10 minutes every week, but it's usually more than that, said Stephanie Marta, attendance coordinator for AASD. During those meetings, they may discuss attendance, grades or behavior. And parents are contacted as needed according to the student's specific plan.

There are 21 attendance mentors across the grade levels supporting more than 100 students.

Not all of the data is available yet, since it’s a new program, but Garvey said early indications show it is working for students.

The district isn’t working alone to improve attendance

Some students who struggle with attendance are referred to the Truancy Reduction and Assessment Center, or TRAC, at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley.

TRAC has three case managers assigned to Appleton middle and high schools who meet one-on-one with students on a referral basis to build positive relationships and uncover what might be stopping them from attending school.

TRAC has seen an increase in the number of students served almost every month compared to the year before, said director Dustin Thew. This calendar year, it has already served 219 students, compared to 318 in all of 2022. Like the school district, Thew said mental health is a main factor in students struggling to go to school.

But TRAC took a different approach this school year. Instead of starting with a caseload of zero that grows as students are referred, TRAC carried over students from last year, and case managers started working with them when school started.

“When you have that relationship with the student — and it’s a positive one — it’s a lot easier for them to say, ‘I remember you, I trust you,’” Thew said.

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Reach AnnMarie Hilton at or 920-370-8045. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie.

This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Appleton students are still struggling with attendance, truancy