Report: Detroit faces the most challenges to keeping kids in school. Schools can’t fix the problem alone.

How bad is Detroit’s student chronic absenteeism problem? Wayne State University researchers have identified eight conditions — such as poverty, unemployment, and even cold temperatures — that are strongly correlated to chronic absence, and the city leads all other large metropolitan areas in having the worst outcomes for almost all of those conditions.

The findings come with a key takeaway the researchers hope will prompt action: Schools alone can’t solve the problem of getting students to school every day, said Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, an assistant professor in the college of education at Wayne State University. And, the findings come during a critical time as the Detroit school district invests heavily in a number of efforts designed to get students in school.

Citywide, across district and charter schools, about half of the students are chronically absent — meaning they’re missing 18 or more days during the school year.

Lenhoff said what’s needed is a more coordinated effort that brings together policymakers, school district officials, charter school officials, community organizations, and community members.

Without it, the work being done by schools is “unlikely to make the huge difference we need to make,” Lenhoff said.

There is already a community-wide effort, called Every School Day Counts Detroit, focused on improving attendance in the city. Lenhoff said that effort includes the Wayne State research team, school districts, and several  community organizations, such as the Brightmoor Alliance, that are tackling attendance problems. But it needs more involvement from city officials and policymakers, she said.

Lenhoff is one of the four authors of the report, called “Detroit’s Uniquely Challenging Context For Student Attendance.” The others are lead author Jeremy Singer, Walter Cook, and Ben Pogodzinski. It’s a continuation of a series of research reports this year that examines issues related to education in the city, including attendance and mobility.

The researchers looked at a number of factors that could impact chronic absenteeism to come up with the eight identified as having a strong correlation: 

  • Percentage of adults with asthma 
  •  Rate of violent crime per 1,000 residents 
  •  Residential vacancy rate 
  •  Unemployment rate 
  •  Poverty rate 
  •  Racial segregation 
  •  Population change from 1970-2010 
  •  Average monthly temperature


Adult asthma rates may seem like a strange factor, considering we’re talking about children. Lenhoff said there was limited data on child asthma rates across all of the communities studied. But the report notes that the adult asthma rates “may reflect the degree to which students are more or less prone to asthma themselves.”

They also looked at large metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more to see how Detroit ranks. The city ranked at the top for adults with asthma, violent crime, unemployment, poverty, residential vacancies, and population change. Detroit ranked second for segregation and third for average (cold) monthly temperature. Lenhoff said she didn’t expect the latter to be a factor.

“Students who walk or take public transportation to school may be particularly impacted by inclement weather, including extremely cold temperatures, snow, and rain, as research has shown that such conditions can create barriers to attendance,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the rate of residential vacancies is a factor because many of those vacant homes are abandoned and unsafe properties that students must walk by in order to get to school. Also, racial segregation, the report said, “may reflect a history of disinvestment and racial discrimination at the root of … barriers to attendance like poverty and blight.”

By far, the city also has the worst rates of chronic absenteeism among the 33 communities studied, with a rate of 47.80%. That is followed by Milwaukee with 38.20% rate and Philadelphia, with a 31.80% rate.

Chronic absenteeism in the Detroit school district is about 63%, down from 70% the year before. The district has pushed to place attendance agents in every school. Lenhoff said many charter schools also have high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Read the full report below: