How Out-of-School-Time Programs Can Improve School Attendance

As District leaders grapple with how to address chronic absenteeism among students, they should consider the role that out-of-school time (OST) programs can play in keeping students engaged with their schools. Success stories and data from many community-based organizations in the District demonstrate that youth who attend an afterschool or summer program are more likely to attend school regularly than their peers who don’t participate.
May 17, 2024
Blog Post

As District leaders grapple with how to address chronic absenteeism among students, they should consider the role that out-of-school time (OST) programs can play in keeping students engaged with their schools. Success stories and data from many community-based organizations in the District demonstrate that youth who attend an afterschool or summer program are more likely to attend school regularly than their peers who don’t participate.

What is chronic absenteeism, and how prevalent is it in the District?

Students are considered to be chronically absent if they miss at least 10 percent of school days, including both excused and unexcused absences. During the 2022-23 school year, 43% of District students were chronically absent, according to a report from the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE). This represents a modest decrease from the previous year’s chronic absenteeism rate of 48%. The OSSE report highlights an attendance crisis, especially among high school students, 60% of whom were chronically absent throughout that school year.

The reasons students become chronically absent are complex and varying, but factors such as unsafe school conditions, bullying, illnesses, and housing instability can contribute. In the District, 49% of “economically disadvantaged” students were chronically absent, compared to only 21% of their peers who are not “economically disadvantaged,” according to the OSSE report. A WAMU analysis found that chronic absenteeism rates for youth who attend schools east of the river, where the majority of students are Black, ranged from 80% to nearly 90%. This finding mirrors geographic and racial disparities that also exist in access to OST to programs, across many aspects of the lives of youth who have been impacted by centuries of structural racism in the District.

What is the connection between OST and chronic absenteeism?

The research is clear that when students don’t attend school regularly, it negatively impacts their academic achievement and their long-term success. District education leaders have invested in several interventions in recent years, with mixed results. While leaders should continue to invest in addressing underlying barriers to attendance, such as safe transportation, they should also work to increase access to OST programs and the powerful impact that youth development opportunities are having on student attendance. For example: 

  • DC SCORES, which provides a combination of soccer, poetry, and service learning activities to 3,000 youth in the District after school and in the summer. A study conducted by Sharp Insight found that elementary and middle school students who participated in DC SCORES had higher school attendance rates than students at the same schools who did not participate. Average school attendance for DC SCORES participants overall ranged from 95% to 97% over the three years that the study was conducted (between 2018 and 2021), whereas for non-participants at the same schools, the average ranged from 88% to 92%.
  • Horizons Greater Washington, which focuses on academic enrichment, swim instruction, field trips, and guest speakers, analyzed data provided by DCPS and found that 84% of students who participated in Horizons programs consistently attended school during the 2021-22 school year, compared to 58% of non-participating students. Read on for more insight into these findings.
  • Data from the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program, which is the only federal funding source specifically for OST, also provides evidence. The 2021-22 performance report shows that 73% of District students in grades 1 through 12 who participated in 10-month afterschool programs funded by 21st CCLC demonstrated improved school attendance. 

In addition to these local examples, data and research from other jurisdictions draw a similar connection between OST participation and improved student attendance.

  • A Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis study from 2020 found that students–especially boys and Latine students–who participated in an afterschool program in San Francisco saw substantial reductions in chronic absenteeism.
  • A brief from the Institute of Education Sciences and Attendance Works compiles examples of how states and cities across the country have documented improvements in school attendance among students who participated in OST programs. 

How one District OST program achieved attendance gains

Horizons Executive Director Mike Di Marco is proud of the attendance gains made by student participants, but not at all surprised.

Di Marco knows many factors keep students from regularly attending school. For some, it’s about not feeling like they belong in the classroom. Horizons aims to counter these feelings by providing support like bilingual staff for the many English learners who participate in the program. He also attributes the success to the academic acceleration that students experience in the summer, which sets them up to start the school year with a sense of confidence that helps them feel like going to school is worth it.

For example, students are five months behind in math skills–on average–when they begin the five-week Horizons summer program. By the end of the program, 70% of students make such significant gains that they enter the next school year at or above grade level for math – with some students gaining up to eight months worth of math learning in the program. 

“Our students go back to school achieving at grade level or even three months ahead of their peers, which makes it a lot easier to overcome a lot of obstacles.” Di Marco said. “Our students feel like they belong at school because they’re going back with such confidence.”

Di Marco says another key ingredient for improving school attendance is deep partnership with school partners. Di Marco and his staff are in constant contact with teachers and principals at their main D.C. partner schools, H.D. Cooke Elementary School, Bancroft Elementary School,  Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School, Simon Elementary School, and the Bishop Walker School for Boys. This approach is backed by research, which shows that school-community partnerships play a key role in successful schools and positive student outcomes. 

 “We are on the phone with principals all the time talking about where students are, what they need, and how we can work together to address challenges students are facing,” Di Marco said. “We also write narrative reports based on what students did over the summer, and share those insights with schools.”

The experiences and outcomes youth get at Horizons and other OST programs are in high demand–Horizons has a wait list of 100 students. Across the District, there is a shortage of free or affordable OST options for families. There are enough seats in afterschool and summer programs to serve just 40% of public and public charter school students, according to a 2023 report from the DC Policy Center.

DC Action and our partners are advocating for universal access to OST programs, starting with youth who have the greatest needs and the least access. Click here to read more about what it would take for the District to achieve this goal, and here to view a DC Council bill that would mandate universal OST by 2035.