EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — Chronic absenteeism affects school districts nationwide. It was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, and Connecticut officials said it’s become even worse.

The Connecticut Department of Education said the new Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP, helps bring students back to the classroom. School leaders said it’s been such a success that 20 other states, including Massachusetts, are contacting Connecticut to adopt the program.

For East Hartford High School freshman Dereon Ellison, LEAP eased her concerns and helped keep her in school.

“When I heard I was going to the high school, I was really scared,” Ellison said. “The program introduced me to drill and track, and the program just told me about the expectations here and how to keep my grades up and manage my time correctly. Since I’m on the drill team, I come to school more often and work harder in classes.”

The research-based home visiting program was launched in 2021 to address student absenteeism and disengagement from school due to the pandemic. LEAP is in 14 districts, helping students with high-risk behavior, low attendance and poor grades.

LEAP Social Worker Antoinette Locke knocked on those families’ doors over the summer, getting ahead of the school year and creating a trusting relationship.

“They are much more open to the school connecting and partnering,” Locke said. “That’s number one because they’ve already been exposed to a positive interaction with the school.”

Officials with the Department of Education said chronic absenteeism was 10% across the state before COVID. In the 2021-22 school year, that number hit 23.7%. LEAP has helped that number fall to 20% in the 2022-23 school year, bringing 18,000 more students back to school.

Locke said LEAP makes connections that go well beyond the classroom.

“Being able to connect them with mental health resources, simple things like coats for the winter and food baskets,” Locke said.

“Finding a shelter availability, a translator to explain school policies and procedures, connecting families to reliable transportation options, you name it, they are there to help remove those barriers,” Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said.

Click here to read the state’s recent report, entitled The LEAP Effect: Taking A Systemic Approach to Improving Attendance & Engagement, which outlines the impacts of LEAP.

The state is hoping to expand LEAP. They currently use $14 million of the American Rescue Plan dollars to fund the program through 2026.