To gain a holistic understanding of the absenteeism situation in Hartford public schools, we dove into the world of literature surrounding the subject of absenteeism to produce a literature review, conducted both focus groups and personal phone interviews with participants, which were analyzed and interpreted to ultimately produce a series of recommendations aimed at the reduction of high rates of absenteeism.
Initial Data Collection and Context
To construct our literature review, we searched through thousands of studies and articles related to absenteeism. While reading the articles, we took notes, which were then incorporated into a spreadsheet highlighting the most important findings of each article. Then, we grouped articles conducting studies of similar concepts (eg. mental health vs. interventional strategies). Finally, we synthesized the articles within the framework of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory in the literature review organized as follows: introduction, background, theoretical framework, findings, analysis of research gaps, and conclusion. Through the literature review, we concluded that because there are a multitude of factors which produce a student’s absenteeism, they should not be confronted through one intervention strategy, but rather a multifaceted approach that aims to address all of the student’s needs separately.
Data Collection Methods
To collect the data for our research, we conducted a series of focus groups with participants: both the parents of students demonstrating high levels of absenteeism and also some of the students themselves who demonstrate high levels of absenteeism and are at least 18 years old. Our community partner, Hartford Public Schools (HPS), provided us with the contact information of the participants and also of the procedure to reach out to participants, the questions to be asked during focus groups, and the consent forms confirming the participant’s engagement with the study. Alongside the IRB form itself, all these documents were sent to the IRB for approval of the study. After receiving approval, we began conducting focus groups. While some focus groups were conducted in person on Trinity College’s campus and others over zoom, each focus group included several participants who responded to the questions in a discussion format. After receiving participants’ consent, all focus groups were recorded. Finally, after focus groups were completed, all participants were given a $25 gift card. Focus groups lasted for approximately 30 minutes. All focus groups were conducted in English, except for one, which was held in Spanish.
Since attendance at the focus groups was low and it was difficult to maintain contact with participants, we pivoted to conducting individual phone interviews with participants. These phone interviews followed the same IRB process and utilized the same discussion questions as the focus groups, the only difference being they were conducted on an individual level. Phone interviews lasted for a similar duration to the focus groups, approximately 30 minutes. Phone interview participants were also given a $25 gift card after the completion of their interviews. All phone interviews were conducted in English. Across focus groups and phone interviews, our sample size is six participants (five parents and one student).
The Total Number of Participants
Number of those we reached out to about participating in focus group or phone interview
Number of those who participated in a focus group or phone interview
Students (18+) with high rates of absenteeism
Parents of students with high rates of absenteeism
For all of our participants, HPS initially reached out to potential families and students about participating our study. After gaining verbal confirmation that they would participate, HPS sent the contact information of these individuals to us. Then, our group reached out via phone call, email, and text message to re-confirm their participation in our project and sign the required digital consent form. However, many times, families and students did not respond when we reached out, so we left voicemails and followed up on emails and text messages.
Across students and families, we reached out to a total of 40 individuals, but spoke with 6.
Data Analysis Methods
1. Transcribed Focus Groups and Interviews
After the completion of each focus group or interview, each recording was uploaded to a transcription software which transcribed the discussions. To ensure accuracy, we read through the transcriptions to confirm that what was said during the focus group or interview aligned with the transcription.
The confidentiality of the participants is of utmost importance, so in order to protect the identity of each individual, their name was replaced with a randomly generated pseudonym, and so were the names of any individuals they mentioned in their responses.
To interpret the responses of each participant, we critically read through each transcription, searching for common themes, or codes, across interviews as we read. Codes were then given a definition and were utilized to organize the analysis of the findings. More information on our coding can be found on the findings page.
Why These Methods?
- We choose to do focus groups and interviews because of their qualitative nature. This method allowed researchers to rephrase questions and cater to the participants.
- After the focus groups and interviews were conducted, we transcribed and edited the interviews to remove personalized information to maintain confidentiality.
- We used coding to quantify themes within our qualitative data. The more frequent a code, the more influential that theme was on the HPS community.
- Overall, focus groups and interviews allowed us to collect qualitative data and our coding process helped us quantify that data and find common themes.
Roles of Community Partners
From start to finish, Hartford Public Schools played a significant role in our research process.
They provided context, information and data on:
- Prior and current attendance programs and initiatives
- Student and family demographics
- The definition of “chronic absenteeism” in Connecticut
- Root causes and the most common reasons for absence
HPS staff also assisted with:
- Reaching out to families and students to coordinate focus groups and interviews
- Finding accessible spaces to hold in-person focus groups and interviews
- Updating participant contact information
HPS representatives met with us monthly to discuss the direction of our research. During early research stages they provided us with a starting point for our research and their goals for the project. Midway and towards the end of our project, they provided feedback and helped brainstorm the best way to conduct focus groups and interviews.
Challenges and Limitations
Limited Time Frame
The Liberal Arts Action Lab is a program that runs over the course of a three-month semester. Therefore, all stages of the research involving the students were limited to this short timeframe. Had the project been able to operate over a longer period, perhaps more focus groups would have been conducted, producing a more comprehensive series of findings and recommendations.
Given their busy schedules, many participants did not confirm their participation in their scheduled focus groups or interviews, participate in focus groups or interviews, nor respond to requests to reschedule. Their absence from the focus groups and interviews represents a loss of possibly crucial data.
Given the large Spanish speaking population in the HPS district, we had many Spanish speaking participants. In order to accommodate this, we conducted a Spanish speaking only focus group with a native Spanish speaking moderator. However, some participants were not able to attend the Spanish speaking group.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, all focus groups and phone interviews were held in English, except for one focus group conducted in Spanish. However, when reaching out to some participants in preparation for an English speaking focus group or interview, some individuals responded in Spanish and mentioned that they do not speak English. Since no one on our team spoke fluent Spanish, we were unable to collect data from these potential participants.
Working with HPS, the students we spoke with may have felt inclined to respond in a certain way. For example, they may have been under the false impression that if they respond about having a positive experience at their school, their grades would improve. Conversely, they may believe that if they offer a negative experience of their school, or provide a harsh critique, that their grades may be negatively impacted by their responses. The way in which they responded may have been affected by these false impressions.
Furthermore, we are a group of students coming from a diverse array of backgrounds. Perhaps respondents were able to recognize a characteristic in one of us which they align with, making them feel more comfortable to speak with us and therefore opening up more about their experiences.
An important part of our identities as researchers is that we are undergraduate students studying at both Trinity College and Capital Community College, which we recognize as institutions with higher degrees of credibility, especially in the Hartford area. The level of prestige of Trinity and Capital may have affected how participants responded during focus groups and interviews.
Hearing Directly From the Participants
In both the focus groups and the interviews, we were able to speak directly with the participants themselves in a space where they were able to elaborate on their answers. This contrasts with surveys in which participants’ responses are limited to filling in bubbles which represent responses that most closely resemble theirs. Furthermore, through focus groups and interviews, participants can offer responses that either contrast any preconceived and expected responses or allow us to consider an aspect of absenteeism in a new way.
Potential to Build Trust
Focus groups and interviews tend to be more personal experiences for both the participant(s) and the researcher. Through building rapport in both qualitative data collection methods, a sense of trust is built, which can be extended to HPS. Before speaking with us, many participants demonstrated being skeptical towards HPS (as many have blocked HPS’s calls), but through focus groups and interviews with our team, perhaps the participants recognize HPS’s efforts to reduce absenteeism, and may begin to develop trust with the district.