Stefan Schwall has developed and piloted a new approach to reduce high school absenteeism: Stefan supports schools in tracking absences, trains teachers to deal with difficult students, created a facility for chronically absent kids, and has transformed cooperation with the youth welfare system. He is cutting costs for youth welfare offices and ensuring that chronically absent kids are placed in programs that are appropriate for their needs.
The New Idea
The core of Stefan’s work is bringing absent children back into school. His strategy begins with implementing a five-part tracking system for absences to identify the most difficult cases. Stefan has already implemented his model in eight schools and reported a decline in absenteeism of 90 percent. More than thirty other schools in the pilot city of Wuppertal are beginning to track attendance and others have expressed interest.
In addition, Stefan trains teachers in how to deal with absenteeism. He conducts trainings and workshops to help ensure that teachers understand the most appropriate ways to handle routinely absent children, many with behavioral problems. A key aspect of Stefan’s trainings is his focus on the rules, norms, and morals of handling emotion in the classroom—in particular, how this affects managing an effective classroom and solving absentee problems.
Stefan has also developed an innovative approach to diagnose underlying reasons for individual absenteeism. Often, only through simple analysis of school days missed, the particular type of school absenteeism can be identified. A teenager who is highly resistant toward clear rules and structure needs to be treated differently from a teenager seeking structure. The individual needs of students are not difficult to identify, but are critical in diagnosing the roots of absenteeism.
In Germany, several severe problems within the education and youth welfare sector result in inefficiencies and widespread inattention to the prevalence of absenteeism: (i) there are no precise statistics on absenteeism (ii) teachers are not in control of the classroom and are not properly trained to handle absenteeism and (iii) the youth welfare system does not prioritize integrating troubled kids into mainstream schools.
Studies by individual German regional states estimate that 8 to 10 percent of all high school students attend school on a sporadic basis. However, there have never been national studies that would allow a precise analysis and understanding of the problem. Schools do not track or even report to a local or central register regarding the attendance of students. The dimension and significance of the problem, however, is dramatic: The lowest tiers of German secondary schools within Stefan’s pilot group report that in their last two school years, 25 to 30 percent of all students are absent regularly and put their graduation at risk. In general, kids absent from school are more likely to drop out without graduating, lose opportunities for higher education, and have more difficulty finding jobs. Absenteeism not only affects a child’s future, it also accrues significant long-term costs on the welfare system.
In addition to the lack of statistics to help prioritize absenteeism on a national level, teachers are not properly trained to handle students’ behavioral problems. Many children are thus left without the support they need. This damages the relationship between pupils and teachers in the classroom, reduces the quality of education for the class, and limits teachers’ work capacities. Children from resource-scarce families or non-German backgrounds have a particularly difficult time adjusting to the highly-structured German school system. If teachers cannot handle students’ behavioral problems, school absences, or their passivity during day-to-day school life, it is especially difficult for them.
Although there are many programs around school absenteeism financed by the welfare offices, they lack a holistic approach and do not incorporate schools, teachers, pupils, and parents together as part of the solution. Instead, they attempt to solve the issue by separating troubled kids in an inadequate parallel school structure, usually with lower degrees. This further isolates and reduces their chances of reintegrating into mainstream schools and later, social and professional life.
Stefan’s five-step attendance system and education program for teachers has helped the majority of absent kids return to school. This system first involves identification of those absent kids through simple systematic tracking of their school attendance. Stefan and his team then facilitate individual conversations with students who have the greatest number and most prolonged absences. If these students continue to skip school, a discussion with their parents follows. If this conversation does not improve the situation, students, parents, a school representative, and a youth welfare officer are invited to a meeting, where the legal consequences of school absenteeism are laid out. At this point, most children have returned to school, although if an additional intervention is needed, Stefan works with the welfare office to ensure that the children and families are connected with support structures.
In 2005 Stefan founded Apeiros, an external day care facility with a therapeutic-pedagogic approach. For the facility, he developed a diagnostic model that distinguishes between seven types of absentee kids. This ensures that treatment and support is based on their specific needs.
At Apeiros, all kids are required to appear on time in the morning, and if they do not, staff members will pick them up personally. The facility has a comfortable atmosphere: It mixes work places for staff, study areas for kids, and areas for recreation or personal talks. Kids are not forced to learn at Apeiros, but most eventually attend by choice. Most important is the respect paid by staff members to the kids. Because students are treated as equals, the personal and legal consequences of their behavior are explained clearly from the start. Reactions toward misbehavior are strict, but fair. This mature, professional, balanced, and transparent environment helps kids feel appreciated and comfortable with a structured daily routine.
In the past six years, Apeiros has treated over 130 young people, and nearly 90 percent graduated and moved on with greater future prospects. Apeiros works with four full-time staff and eleven freelancers to ensure that every child receives the most appropriate diagnosis and individual treatment plan.
The clear community-related aspect of Stefan’s strategy tackles the relationship between schools and the local youth welfare office. Stefan facilitates a more cooperative relationship between the youth welfare offices and the schools by clarifying their legal responsibilities and possible measures they have at hand for individual cases. Apart from tracking and treating absenteeism, Stefan trains teachers on how to best prevent absenteeism by mastering emotions in the classroom. He helps teachers to respond in a differentiated way to violations of rules and norms by kids and consciously manage their possible emotional escalation. This is key to retaining a trustful and stable relationship between teachers and students.
With his programs within schools, Stefan is spreading to two other cities near Wuppertal. To expand, Stefan has intensively trained his staff in order to remove himself from Apeiros’ operational responsibilities.
In one of Stefan’s pilot schools, he noticed that a 14-year-old girl was missing from school nearly every day. He approached the teachers, parents, and finally the police, but not a single person knew where she was. After filing a police report, she was found in another city a few days later. Shocked by the lack of accountability on the part of the schools and teachers, Stefan began to educate schools about their legal responsibilities and ways to improve relationships with students.
Stefan incorporates his personal experience in his work with the education system in Germany. Having spent years in different children’s homes and foster families, he faced severe difficulties in school and displayed behavioral problems. When asked what he wanted to do with his future—he wished to become an engineer—although most people did not believe it was possible for someone with his background. Stefan improved rapidly in school in the attempt to push forward with his dream and graduated at the top of his class. He entered university and majored in philosophy and biology and minored in chemistry and history.
Aside from his studies, Stefan worked in a children’s home for troubled boys. Through his own history, he was able to connect quickly with the boys and gain their respect and trust. Stefan says that he is not afraid to deal with boys and young men displaying behavioral problems, but senses intuitively how to best support them to attain opportunities for education and societal participation.
Stefan worked as a school teacher serving an underprivileged area that experienced high rates of absenteeism. He also continued to work part-time in the children’s home with youth. After some years, Stefan quit his job as a teacher. It bothered him that teachers refused to trust their students and did not recognize their potential. He also realized that he could not change the school system by criticizing it. Giving up his safe perspective as a civil servant with secure employment was a lonely but necessary decision for him. Stefan then accepted a job in the children’s home and became a group leader only three months later. After one year, he became interim director for six months and discovered serious financial problems, which meant turning the children’s home into a non-profit organization.
At this point, Stefan had the concept of Apeiros in his mind. A word deduced from ancient Greek, Apeiros symbolizes the development and crudeness of boys from difficult backgrounds with which he worked. His approach was to give truants a place they could go to and not to consult, but to educate them. Stefan later opened Apeiros to girls and further developed his method.
Stefan possesses an extraordinary talent to deal with youth from difficult backgrounds, and is able to communicate with them on a level of mutual trust—explaining legal consequences of absenteeism in a transparent way and, at the same time, opening future perspectives to them. He is also a dedicated teacher and mentor to his Apeiros staff, sharing his experiences and in training the diagnostic model and methods he successfully developed. Stefan is communicator, writer, and networker, connecting youth welfare offices, schools, youth, parents, and government.