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Using Lean Leaders to Catapult SFUSD's response to Chronic Absence

Today's post is from San Francisco Unified School District's (SFUSD) Director of School Portfolio Planning, Karissa Yee -- and PPI Lean Leaders Alum!



Last year, I completed Partners in Public Innovation's Lean Leaders cohort training over several months, where I learned about Lean, Six Sigma, and other problem-solving approaches and tools. I then applied these new tools to build understanding and develop solutions to address chronic absenteeism in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).


My Lean Leaders experience started out with a multi-day, virtual training. The time somehow  passed quite quickly; the training is engaging and interactive as it introduced PPI’s approach to process improvement--tailored to the unique needs and contexts of leaders in government agencies--and immediately expanded my problem-solving tool box. We learned frameworks and approaches at a theoretical level and then it got more real when we tried things out together in a safe, practice environment with our cohort. We also heard from a Lean Leaders alum and how they used the same approaches to solve a unique problem in their role.


District-wide chronic absenteeism data for 21-22 school year

The real-world issue I chose to work on was chronic absence in SFUSD--when student absences add up, they begin to negatively impact student outcomes. This issue is closely tied to educational equity, something I am passionate about addressing. Prior to joining SFUSD, I spent 3 years as the Special Projects Manager for Attendance Works, the leading national nonprofit organization on chronic absence that helped define the term and bring it to national attention. Recently, Attendance Works attended a White House summit highlighting this very issue! Although student attendance was not a part of my regular responsibilities at SFUSD, I saw how strategic support might be helpful to SFUSD, and of course ensured that the project sponsors were open to taking this issue on as my Lean Leaders project. 


As the Lean Leaders participants started filling in an A3 (a tool that provides a framework for successful problem-solving) for our projects, the first step in my project was defining the issue and communicating its importance. The Board of Education and the Superintendent had named the Vision, Values, Goals and Guardrails for the District, and reducing chronic absence had been identified in that work as an interim guardrail. As we approached the end of the 2022-2023 school year, I became concerned that chronic absence was moving in the wrong direction. I obtained access to data reporting tools on student attendance and chronic absence, and began to share these metrics with District leaders who were situated in the organization to be accountable for taking action in this area and able to delegate resources. At this point, sharing access to regular metrics on chronic absence, and raising the alarm bell that the data did not appear to be improving, was an important place to begin.


Mapping the Current Process

To better understand what was actually happening, I adapted the Gemba Walk protocol (a method used to observe and understand what is actually happening rather than going with assumptions about what may be happening) by conducting a number of interviews with school leaders and support staff working on student attendance. Prior to the pandemic, effort had already been made to understand chronic absence challenges in SFUSD and provide recommendations. This effort had engaged multiple layers of stakeholders, including students and families. I drew on documentation from this effort and focused my own interviews on the school leader and staff perspective. While every school and school community is a little different, some common themes emerged about the process and challenges that school communities were experiencing. These interviews informed a process map: I highlighted the parts of the process various SFUSD parties had control over (i.e., school site, central office), added estimated times for each step, determined which steps added value (to the student/their family), were legally required, or were decidedly neither, and identified obstacles manifesting throughout the process.


Process Map with Obstacle Analysis (Figure 3 to SFUSD Chronic Absence Staff Progress Monitoring Update)

Root Cause Analysis

I used a fishbone diagram to conduct a root cause analysis to better understand why chronic absence was increasing in SFUSD after our return to in-person learning, post-COVID lockdown. Insights from the interviews, news articles, and my own perspective and experiences informed the root cause analysis. One takeaway I recalled from Lean Leaders about change management is how important it is to adapt your materials and language so that it resonates with the key stakeholders you are hoping to influence. When I met with District instructional leaders, they pointed out how the fishbone analysis lent itself to the concept of the Six Circles Model, with which they were familiar. I adapted the fishbone analysis to add a green line and move certain categories above or below the green line, a hallmark of the model they knew. Making this adjustment really resonated with leadership and increased their ownership over the project.


Fishbone Diagram (Figure 2 to SFUSD Chronic Absence Staff Progress Monitoring Update); Modified Fishbone Diagram using Six Circles Model attributes


Solution Prioritization and Implementation

I became very interested in understanding what kind of support and guidance by the central office were needed for the 121 school sites (SFUSD District and County)--and how we could provide support to be broadly useful but also flexible enough to adapt to the individual contexts of each school community. Moving into the Solutions portion of my Lean Leaders' project, I found that the Impact/Effort Matrix, a prioritization tool with quadrants differentiating between high-low effort and high-low impact, to be very helpful. With limited resources and staffing to focus on chronic absence, I prioritized actionable changes for improving student attendance. 


Prioritization Tool: Impact/Effort Matrix

Attendance Works breaks down how to address chronic absence into a multi-tiered approach: Tier 1 universal approaches for everyone, Tier 2 targeted early intervention, and Tier 3 intensive interventions for those already missing many school days. Because this multi-tiered framework is familiar to instructional leaders, I developed a presentation with recommendations using it.


In presenting the final deliverable to instructional leaders, some of the recommendations confirmed changes that were already in the works, some sharpened what was being planned, and some were added as new activities. In the interest of change management, it was important to me that the recommendations did not appear to come out of left field, and that they were feasible for the current context. Among the recommendations were the creation of a central office staff role dedicated to chronic absence, supporting each school site to develop a plan to address chronic absence based on their own data and contexts, a commitment to regularly monitor chronic absence data at district leadership levels, and universal messaging to promote a positive message about attendance.


Tiered Pyramid of Recommendations for SFUSD


Lean Leaders Helped to Actualize the Project

Multiple types of learning and support were embedded into the Lean Leaders program. Because the program runs over several months, there were opportunities to make progress on my project and then check-in for support. Each Lean Leader is matched with a coach, and I worked with PPI Co-Founder and Principal Justine Hinderliter for more individualized support. I also appreciated being part of a cohort, where I had the opportunity to learn about projects that participants from other agencies or SFUSD departments were working on, support them in peer discussion groups, and benefit from observations and advice they shared with me.


For this project, I wanted to be part of implementing solutions and doing the work. With support from the project sponsors, I engaged a communications firm, Underground*,  to develop an SFUSD-specific, multilingual messaging campaign around the theme, "You Belong Here!" This campaign provided Tier 1 universal messaging to increase awareness about the importance of attendance in a positive way that was authentic to our diverse San Francisco audiences. Although I handled the contract and managed the consultant’s work, we brought together content experts and instructional leadership to shape the messaging and select the final theme. Within about 6 weeks, we were able to roll out a messaging campaign, translated into six languages, for the beginning of the school year; we also provided resources for schools to share the messaging at other key points throughout the school year. 


Continuous Improvement

District leaders have shared that this analysis has "set the bar" in the Board's expectations on staff reports. Figures 2 and 3 from the Chronic Absence Staff Progress Monitoring Update to the Board of Education came directly from my Lean Leaders applied project. (SFUSD Chronic Absence Staff Progress Monitoring Update.) I'm thrilled that SFUSD chronic absence has demonstrably dropped this school year (2023-2024), and to think that I helped catalyze some of that progress is so rewarding. 


The high rates of chronic absence that school districts around the nation have seen are not something one person can change on their own. My challenge was: “How do you work in a complex system facing many other priorities to drive change?” I am proud that we have moved the needle, and that we were able to discuss challenges in an authentic way, without blaming students and families. This year I’ve seen much more attention being paid to bringing students back to school and supporting regular attendance; not just in SFUSD, but among other educational agencies in California and across the country. Instead of lagging behind these efforts, SFUSD is right there in the conversation and making measurable progress towards decreasing chronic absence. 



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