I had the privilege of being Senior Advisor to Superintendent Austin Beutner during my last year at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Before becoming superintendent, he was committed to addressing student absenteeism because of its impact on student success. As superintendent, he doubled down on that effort and asked that I help lead the District’s attendance initiative.
On the ground, there was significant work happening. The pupil services and attendance coordinators (PSA) provided intensive supports targeted to meet the needs of chronically absent students. Across the District, there were pockets of excellence, but moving the needle on attendance can be a heavy lift. Then, I learned about the exciting work Superintendent Mike Romero was doing in LA Unified Local District South.
Superintendent Romero met EveryDay Labs’ Co-founder, Dr. Rogers, at the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) at Harvard University during his session on leveraging behavioral science to reduce student absenteeism at scale. In LA Unified Local District South, they were using Dr. Rogers' mail-based attendance nudges and seeing actual results. More students were showing up and more families were engaging with school sites.
I admit I was skeptical that a mail-based attendance nudge could change behavior. Attendance is a complex issue; there are systemic and individual factors that contribute to absenteeism, and I knew firsthand that most interventions were intensive and expensive. Still, I was intrigued by the results Superintendent Romero shared and wanted to learn more. So, I went with a team from the LAUSD to PELP.
I met Dr. Rogers, sat in on his session, and was alarmed by what I learned. Based on his research, families underestimated their students’ absences by 50 percent. They didn’t realize that missing even one or two days per month can drastically impact their students’ success. This was especially true in the early grades — critical, formative years in a student’s development as a learner. The more I learned, the more I wanted to understand Dr. Rogers’ intervention.
As I researched, I realized absenteeism is even more complex than I previously realized. I learned how much of the opportunity gap is related to missed learning opportunities. I started to see how an intervention that focuses on proactively preventing absences and engaging families before a student becomes chronically absent could be a powerful tool in complimenting the incredible work the PSA coordinators were doing on the ground.
For me, the next step was clear: we needed to expand the work Superintendent Romero championed by serving all students across the LAUSD. After that, the results spoke for themselves. More students showed up, and the Local District Superintendents loved the work because it was easy to implement but delivered tangible results. Renewing the program was an easy choice—it’s evidence-based and low-lift. Educators were excited, and our capacity to engage families around absenteeism increased. It didn’t supplant the work PSA coordinators were doing but complimented it. The goal was to give them space to do the more intensive, more complex intervention, and the program accomplished that.
After a long career at the LAUSD, I left in 2019 to pursue consulting. In 2020, the pandemic permanently reshaped the education landscape. As reports emerged about the deepening absenteeism crisis, I wanted to make an impact to help get students back on track. I had stayed in contact with EveryDay Labs’ CEO Emily Bailard, and I was blown away by the way the company expanded their products and services to support students and families during the pandemic. When the opportunity arose to join the team in a position that allowed me to be closer to the classroom, making a real impact in students’ lives—the choice was clear.
There’s a lot of work to be done to get students on track and accelerate learning, and some uncertainty about the best way forward. The pandemic has only further proven that attendance is the foundation of student success. That’s where I’ll start.
Diane H. Pappas is a nationally recognized executive leader known for implementing cohesive and high-performing strategies for large-scale, complex organizations. She has led several high-profile investigations and successfully managed complex litigations. She recently led a team of more than 300 people in turning around one of the most significant student data projects in the country, My Integrated Student Information System (MiSiS), at the nation's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Following the success of that initiative, she was appointed Senior Advisor to the Superintendent of LAUSD where she was instrumental in leading the districtwide attendance initiative. A long-time champion for children's rights, she is passionate about the education and safety of all children. She is also a prolific writer and has published 18 children's books.