Keeping Our Learners on Track:  HPS Student Engagement Specialists

Keeping Our Learners on Track: HPS Student Engagement Specialists

In August 2019, Hartford Public Schools launched a new strategy to tackle chronic absenteeism and lack of student engagement. The district designated 18 Student Engagement Specialists – full-time staff who address attendance challenges with research-based efforts.

Reducing chronic absenteeism (CA) is a key priority for the district. Research shows that students who are chronically absent – missing 18 days of school or 10% of the school year – fall behind and are less likely to graduate. While HPS has seen a recent reduction in CA, it’s an ongoing challenge.

That’s where Student Engagement Specialists, or SES staff, come in. They have been assigned to HPS schools where chronic absenteeism is acute, or where 20% or more of students are chronically absent. “The introduction of Student Engagement Specialists in priority schools has leveraged the advantage of human capital to improve student outcomes in Hartford Public Schools,” said Candace Chester, assistant director of Student Engagement and Behavior Support.

In addition to closely monitoring attendance data, SES staff are working to re-engage students who are off track and build a positive, welcoming school culture.

“When we talk about student engagement specialists, we do capture the chronic absenteeism, but honestly, that is just one piece of it. The other piece is truly the academic engagement in schools,” said Nekita Carrol-Hall, assistant director of Student Engagement and Behavior Support.

What They Do

To help meet the district goal of decreasing chronic absenteeism by 7% by 2022, the SES team works with district and school attendance teams to ensure that attendance policies and procedures are followed. On a more personal level, they also collaborate with office staff to transition late students – who are also more likely to be absent — and families upon arrival.

If a student arrives late, SES staff might walk the student to breakfast or to class, for example. “SES model how we receive students,” said Carrol-Hall. “It’s about approaching families and students in a positive manner.”

The SES approach also involves identifying root causes for chronic absenteeism to address underlying issues with specific interventions. A student might not come to school because of suspensions and behavioral issues rooted in their overall social-emotional well-being. In that case, the student might be paired with an adult mentor –- a volunteer or community partner — who can meet with the student daily and talk about setting both behavioral and academic goals.

In other cases, if absences are due to family obligations or stress, SES can connect the family with an FCSSP who can identify community resources to support the family. (Read more about who FCSSPS are and what they do.)

Promoting Positive Culture

Beyond what they do in schools during the day to address absences, the SES staff also organize positive student engagement activities. Recent examples include pancake breakfasts or ice cream socials to celebrate students who have perfect attendance. “What we want to do also is encourage more activities where we bring parents in for an attendance celebration — activities to support building community, a culture of attendance within schools,” she said.

To dig deeper into the sources of student disengagement, the SES team plans to conduct focus groups with students, staff, and parents. A particularly innovative idea they are looking ahead to is organizing “Culture Walks” – or tours of schools to develop ideas to make campuses more welcoming.