Sarah Winchell Lenhoff (Wayne State University | Detroit Education Research Partnership); Larry Simmons (Baber Memorial Church | Brightmoor Alliance | Every School Day Counts Detroit); and Christine Bell (Urban Neighborhood Initiatives | Every School Day Counts Detroit)

By definition, research-practice partnership work is concerned with bringing together those that typically work in isolation education researchers and education practitioners – to collaboratively solve and address pressing issues in education. Additional partners can include community-based organizations, parents, youth, and other members of the community; however, RPPs that actively partner with the community throughout the entire research process are still a rare find. Here, we outline how our Detroit-based partnership partners with the community from conception to evaluation through community-based participatory action research – and why it is so important to include community voices in the work.

The Detroit Education Research Partnership is a collaboration between the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), Wayne State University (WSU), and the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition, as we work toward the goal of reducing chronic absenteeism within the district from nearly 70% in 2017-18 to 15% by 2027-2028. Our partnership uses a continuous improvement approach to studying the most pervasive problems in Detroit schools and co-constructing potential solutions through collaborative disciplined-inquiry. We combine the principles of collaborative problem-solving research with a research-practice partnership framework to support the use of research evidence in designing solutions to instability and disengagement in school.

Organized as a networked improvement community, our partnership team generates research to identify root causes of absenteeism in Detroit; identify problems of practice and policy related to addressing absenteeism; and develop and test solutions to those problems. This approach embodies our theory of organizational improvement, which is that organizations like school districts get better by establishing systems that allow them to learn from their own practice, problems, and adaptations. In this way, the Detroit Education Research Partnership supports each of our institutions in becoming their own “R and D” labs by collaboratively establishing the routines, tools, and processes to learn and then studying the effectiveness of both the processes and their outcomes.

Absenteeism as a multifaceted problem

Over the last three years, we have learned a lot about absenteeism in Detroit and how to reduce it. Through our quantitative research, we have learned that students who are mobile, new to a school, or who live in neighborhoods with higher asthma rates are more likely to be chronically absent. And we’ve replicated studies from other cities that have found that students who are chronically absent one year are much more likely to be chronically absent the next. These findings have informed how school attendance teams are analyzing their data and identifying students for support, earlier on in the year.

We have also learned that students with the highest attendance in Detroit are concentrated at the city’s “commuter” charter schools and district application and exam schools, traveling longer distances than other students to get to school. This suggests that high attenders have access to resources such as reliable transportation or a social network that can support them in getting to school. 

Our latest research has demonstrated that solutions in schools will only go so far. Barriers to school attendance emanate from the deep structural inequalities built into our cities. Compared to other large cities, Detroit has the most challenging conditions for going to school, including concentrated poverty and high rates of asthma, crime, unemployment, and residential vacancy. Detroit also has the third coldest average temperature of all major U.S. cities, which has a huge impact on attendance, since the city and school transit systems are under-resourced and cover only a fraction of students. An estimated 40% of Black Detroiters do not own a car

Findings from the first year of our developmental evaluation of DPSCD attendance initiatives suggest that school staff are eager and able to address attendance barriers such as student motivation and lack of knowledge, but they find it much more difficult to address structural barriers such as lack of transportation and housing instability – which is where community-led solutions come in.

Early community efforts

In one of the first coordinated efforts to reduce chronic absence in Detroit, pastors in Brightmoor piloted a community-led project to use church vans to pick up students and take them to school for one semester in 2013. The initiative worked, and students who were picked up got to school more frequently. Yet, the effort was unsustainable. First, it was expensive. Without the economies of scale of a school system, the pastors couldn’t reach all of the students who might benefit. Second, there was no formal evaluation of the initial success of the program, which made it difficult to raise additional funds or demonstrate to city or district officials that transportation interventions were needed. In Southwest Detroit, community-development organization Urban Neighborhood Initiatives was likewise working to reduce absenteeism through connecting organizations that were working on the issue, parent and youth listening sessions, information campaigns, and youth out-of-school programming.

These early efforts led to the creation of Every School Day Counts Detroit, a coalition that grew to include philanthropic, community, and school partners collectively focused on how to use their resources and expertise to reduce absenteeism. In 2017, Wayne State researchers, who had separately begun a study of absenteeism in Detroit Public Schools, joined the group. Collectively, the coalition determined a research agenda that would combine the study of school-based problems of practice and solutions with a deeper investigation into how community members and city policymakers could improve the conditions for school attendance. Our growing collective understanding of the complexity of the problem of absenteeism motivated us to expand our community-based research this school year.

Active community partnership

With the support of the Skillman Foundation and the Brightmoor Alliance, we are now piloting a community-based participatory action research project (where university researchers will support community members to identify problems they believe impact school attendance and pilot and evaluate interventions) in the neighborhood of Brightmoor, where 54% of its nearly 1,500 students were chronically absent in 2017-18. Brightmoor has a strong cultural history and was a thriving working class community of single-family homes during Detroit’s boom years. Like other areas in the region, it lost population over the last 30 years and suffered from divestment and blight. Nearly all of Brightmoor’s residents are Black and economically disadvantaged. Over time, many of the neighborhood’s schools were closed, leaving only one traditional public school within its 4-square-mile boundary. 

With our community-based participatory action research, we will work in partnership with the Brightmoor Alliance and community organizing group 482Forward to answer these new research questions: 1) What community factors are associated with strong attendance among Brightmoor students, and how can community partners build on those strengths to design interventions to reduce absenteeism? 2) How does a collaborative approach to participatory action research support the development of community-led solutions? 3) What community-led solutions are associated with improved attendance in Brightmoor?

The key role and strengths of community in social problem-solving

Chronic absence is a symptom of issues at home, at school, in community, and in policy. Parents and schools can’t solve the root causes of chronic absence alone. Therefore, community must play a key role in supporting the efforts of parents and schools as well as addressing issues that are within our span of control or influence. Our community has and should continue to support the efforts of messaging the importance of attendance. This is particularly important in Detroit because of our high rates of student mobility. When community drives the messaging no matter the school, students and families hear the same consistent message. 

Community brings a unique perspective to the work of social problem-solving. Our Detroit community has and should continue to address issues in the neighborhoods like ensuring that students have safe routes to travel to and from school. Community has and should continue to provide mentoring and high quality after school and summer programs, like our partner Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, with its youth employment and after-school enrichment program in the Springwells neighborhood. Community has and needs to continue to organize to address policies at the school, state and federal levels that create barriers to students being at school everyday all day. In our work, community is a resource of solutions and perspectives that is missed without their inclusion in the effort from conception to evaluation. Rather than the object or subject of our work, community is a key partner. Complex issues like chronic absence demand that we all collectively work on multiple different pieces of the problem simultaneously so that we can see transformational results.

Challenges in community partnership work

We know this work won’t be easy. We have already encountered challenges, such as convincing all decision makers, both in households and the system, that just 2 days missed a month is significant, that average daily attendance hides the severity of student attendance, and that there are things that can be done at all levels to reduce it. To address this challenge, we have created a roundtable of principals from our community schools, conducted workshops and trainings with national leaders, lobbied school board and philanthropic leadership about chronic absence and pushed an awareness campaign to inform everyone of the issue. Addressing the challenges of poverty requires broadening our coalition and finding new ways to elevate the roles of employment, trauma, crime, housing, and environment, as strands making up the braid of issues that contribute to chronic absence. Getting the attention of system partners has been challenging since most think this is a “school” problem. Our challenge is to use research to elevate the importance of this issue for all decision-makers in the city, and to help them see how their work may impact whether students can get to school.

In closing

The problem of absenteeism and disengagement among Detroit students must be solved. Every year, we graduate nearly 10,000 students. They do not have time to wait for us to figure it out by ourselves; we must have as many voices as it takes to make the transformational change that our children deserve and are counting on us to deliver. It won’t be solved in silos, where the institutions that serve children are disconnected or at odds with each other. We believe that starting from a place of partnership, collaboration, and learning together is the only way forward to reducing chronic absenteeism, and ultimately creating the stable and engaging schools our students deserve. We are actively seeking additional partners as we broaden the work and the reach of our efforts.


Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the College of Education at Wayne State University. She is the principal investigator for the Detroit Education Research Partnership; Rev. Larry Simmons is the pastor at Baber Memorial Church, the executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, and the co-founder of the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition; and Christine Bell, LMSW, is the executive director of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives and the co-founder of the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition.

NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships  |