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School Districts Around the Country Set Their Sights on Chronic Absenteeism

It’s a simple truth that educators across the country can agree on: if a student isn’t in school, they can’t learn.

Chronic absenteeism is almost a guarantee that a child will fall behind in subjects and possibly drop out before graduation. It’s estimated that over a million students missed 15 or more days of the school year in 2013-2014, or roughly one in seven students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

High rates of absenteeism aren’t limited to just one age group, either. Kindergarten student attendance hit absentee levels of 24 percent in Ohio for example. Sullivan Middle School in Worchester, Massachusetts reported that 16 percent of its student population was chronically absent last school year, four points higher than the rest of the state.  

School districts around the country are factoring the problem into their rating of a school’s success under the Every Student Succeeds Act and addressing how to fill those empty seats in classrooms.

Transportation barriers, family dynamics, and unmet basic needs all factor into chronic absenteeism as well as things like the flu or families pulling their children out for vacations. “This year both strep throat and lice have gone around my kid’s classroom like crazy,” Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach who studied absenteeism in schools with Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution said. “We definitely want those children not in school.”

Most schools across the country have attendance rates over 90 percent, it’s only when you look a little deeper that the problem becomes more apparent explained Jeff Graham, superintendent of Lorain, Ohio school district. “When you have 25 percent of our kindergarten students who weren’t here, there needs to be a different approach.”

Unlike test scores, student attendance is a lot less easy for a school to manipulate in order to get a higher rating -- students are either in school or they’re not. Boosting attendance holds schools accountable and of course, is linked to higher rates of student success.

So far at least eight states and Washington, D.C., have made some plan to beat chronic absenteeism, many of them relying upon community involvement.  Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis has implemented a plan for kids with poor attendance and suffering grades that pairs them with mentors who offer to help with organization skills or give them a ride if they miss the bus.

Worcester's Sullivan Middle School has a student population where 57 percent qualify as “economically disadvantaged” by the state, and many of them often come to school in unclean clothes. Not surprisingly, this can lead to them feeling self-conscious and reluctant to attend school. To help address the issue, the school used fundraising money to help students who might not have clean laundry to attend class. “It’s a practical solution to a practical problem,” the school’s principal Josephine Robertson said.

Finding a cure-all fix to the issue doesn’t seem at hand, with each school having to address the problem in their own way and adjust accordingly. For example, sending text notifications about a student’s absence had little success, according to a study conducted by a non-profit educational group in New York City.

Regardless of the approach, the end goal for every school is same with more kids in classrooms. “They can’t learn if they’re not here,” added Graham.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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