A ‘New Normal’ Requires New Tools for Attendance and Family Engagement

Mini arrived at the Office of School Culture in Michigan’s Lansing School District in December 2020. She came on board to help us assess our attendance goals and strategies several months into a global pandemic. Mini immediately organized our scattered data and got to work pushing critical information about attendance to families by sending positive “nudges” via text messages, offering empathetic support and guidance.

Research indicates that the right message sent at the right time can change the course of a family’s success in school.

Mini happens to be a chatbot.

Before Mini joined the team, we had implemented an internal pilot to have a team of district staff members connect with five families each for a weekly check-in. The results were powerful, but the effort was extremely time consuming. We simply didn’t have the human resources to do the same for the 10,000 families in our district.

Prior to the pandemic, acceptance of an AI-powered chatbot might have been hard to muster. But the challenges presented in the last year created a willingness to try new approaches to old problems. Thanks to AllHere, Mini is now a critical member of our team, helping us improve attendance rates and redefine family engagement in the era of COVID-19.

Focus on what works.

To address attendance issues during the pandemic, the first step we took was to research national and local strategies for attendance that are already proven to work. Research indicates that the right message sent at the right time can change the course of a family’s success in school.

Studies show that parental involvement in a student’s education is the most accurate predictor of academic achievement. Researchers at Columbia University went further to study the impact of weekly automated alerts to parents about their student’s missed assignments, grades and class absences. The alerts reduced course failures by 27 percent, increased class attendance by 12 percent and increased student retention.

It’s clear that, by simply closing the information gap between schools and families and students, we can improve a wide range of education outcomes. AllHere’s technology combines these evidence-based strategies with a chatbot that enables an extra layer of personalization and communication that we need more than ever during a time of crisis.


A personalized alert regarding student absences (Credit: AllHere)

Texting is the most effective—and equitable—way to communicate with families.

Recommended Resources from AllHere

The best-crafted letter home—or even email—these days is unlikely to be opened, much less read. It’s too easy to let an announcement slip through the cracks. A study conducted by AllHere found that only 6 percent of families access email on a daily basis, and 40 percent access postal mail on a regular basis. However, 98 percent of families were willing to open and answer text messages.

Reliance on email and school websites for communication is even less effective with lower income families. In households with incomes under $30,000 a year, 44 percent lack home broadband and 46 percent lack a computer. Mobile texting is the best way to ensure consistent and equitable communication with families.

Build trust and improve family engagement with a chatbot.

Every student starts the year with perfect attendance. So, how do we keep it that way? The solution to chronic absenteeism requires much more than attendance intervention strategies. Recent events have clarified what many experts already knew—that attendance issues are rooted in the unique circumstances of each student and family. We need to move away from blanket solutions and personalize our efforts, at the same time making them more scalable.

One of Mini’s greatest assets is her ability to learn and build a knowledge base that responds empathetically to questions from parents and students. Last year, Mini was able to respond within 45 seconds to 96 percent of questions that families texted her. Anything she wasn’t able to answer was escalated to a member of our team. This freed up our staff to focus on the most intensive support for families that required a human touch. In the past, this feedback loop always required a teacher or administrator to respond. Mini is now scaling direct communication for us, in multiple languages.

The solution to chronic absenteeism requires much more than attendance intervention strategies.

The past year and a half presented the greatest challenges our education system has faced in decades. Schools need district support to navigate change and adapt new strategies that combine cutting-edge technology with evidence-based strategies. As a district-wide initiative, Mini supports principals and teachers at the school level without creating more work for them.

Mini has become a friendly extension of our team, removing the burden of change management from our teachers and acting as a supportive advisor to our families. Like Siri or Alexa, Mini is becoming a household name. Our community sees her as a useful tool, a trusted way to get their questions answered quickly. Yes, she’s a chatbot. But the question of whether or not that matters fades away when families feel heard and supported.

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