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Tarsi Dunlop's picture
Tarsi Dunlop is Program and Operations Manager for Learning First Alliance. During her three years supporting public education and associations at the Alliance, she gained a deep appreciation for the...
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From Every Angle: Building Tomorrow's Leaders

I cannot begin to count the number of times I hear a statistic related to children and education that causes me to pause and ask additional questions about the context. A troubling number is often just an indicator of a larger problem~ which serves as backdrop to help explain how we as a society arrived at this measurement. I recently attended three separate events that collectively reminded me~ once again~ that we can help all children realize their true potential through collaboration and teamwork across schools~ districts and communities. By addressing root causes and individual student needs~ we may see students take the lead in their learning~ becoming the future leaders of tomorrow~ today.

On June 26th~ the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)~ the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)~ the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE)~ The Alliance for Excellent Education~ and the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform held a briefing on Capitol Hill~ Absenteeism in the Middle Grades: The Prevalence~ the Impact~ and Turning it Around. There are three terms commonly associated with absenteeism: average daily attendance~ truancy and chronic absence. The first is used in some states to determine funding allocations and measures the percent of enrolled students who attend school each day. Truancy usually refers to unexcused absences and is defined by state~ under No Child Left Behind. It signals the potential need for legal intervention under state compulsory education laws. Finally~ chronic absenteeism indicates missing ten percent or more of a school year for any reason. Nationwide~ as many as 10-15% of students miss nearly a month of school each year. Of even greater concern~ in some cities~ as many as one in four students are missing that much school.

Chronic absenteeism is a sign that students are struggling academically and are at higher risk for dropping out of high school. The window for intervention is in the middle years. Each year of chronic absence in elementary school is associated with a substantially higher probability of chronic absence in 6th grade. By the time struggling students enter high-school~ it is much more challenging to stage an effective intervention and prevent them from leaving the system. The Baltimore Education Resource Consortium tracked a Sixth Grade Cohort in Baltimore City Public Schools from 1990-2000 and showed that severely chronically absent students (more than forty days) had a 56.3% rate of withdrawal from school or likely dropped out. This was compared to those who were not chronically absent (missed 20 days or less) who had a 25.7% withdrawal or likely dropped out rate.

In order to solve chronic absenteeism~ administrators and educators must understand why it exists and be able to address the larger systemic factors contributing to student absence. Often~ it is because of challenges that individual students are facing~ including but not limited to their disengagement from school. Organizations such as Accelerating Via Individual Determination (AVID) demonstrate the importance of effective supplemental support programs and efforts in conjunction with schools and districts. The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) highlighted AVID at a June 21st briefing on Capitol Hill with a presentation by Rob Gira~ Executive Vice President~ Quality~ Research and Communication~ from AVID National Center and several panelists representing AVID districts and schools in Fairfax County Public Schools (VA)~ Fairfax City Public Schools (VA) and Pinellas County (FL). AVIDs mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society. It is a school wide readiness system~ with a structured approach to rigorous curriculum that provides direct supports for first-generation-college goers and professional development for educators. AVID accelerates under-achieving students who have potential into more rigorous courses~ provides intensive support with in-class tutors and strong student/teacher relationships~ and develops a sense of hope and personal achievement gained through hard work and determination~ just to highlight a few components. An AVID alumni on the panel~ now a Junior at American University~ spoke eloquently about the effect AVID had for her in helping her realize her dreams and passion~ and how the program taught her how to learn~ and study~ and be prepared to succeed in college.

Another component of preparing students for the 21st-century and success pertains to real~ meaningful opportunities to put their passion and education to work while in school~ as student leaders in their communities. On June 27th~ the U.S Department of Education hosted an event~ ED Youth Voices: Students Transforming Communities and Schools~ featuring stories about how students are taking local education issues into their own hands. Heaven Reda~ President of Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC)~ and Dawnye Johnson and Taikra White with The Intersection from Baltimore spoke about their efforts on behalf of their communities. BSAC worked to ensure that student feedback was included as an official component of teacher evaluations in Boston Public Schools~ both to help teachers improve and to ensure that student voices and opinions were considered in evaluating educational quality. The students with The Intersection worked to help pass the Maryland Dream Act in 2011. These powerful student speakers shared their personal stories about how this work has changed their lives and the lives of everyone involved with the effort~ and they displayed a more comprehensive~ nuanced understanding of policy-making and social change than many adults.

Instead of focusing the education conversation around a select number of hot topics~ often related to school governance~ we should focus our efforts on overcoming larger societal realities and their impact on student learning. Together~ stakeholders~ including those in the community~ can do their part to collectively keep kids in school~ help them succeed and encourage them to discover their passion. School administrators and educators can identify chronic absenteeism early on and help keep students on track; schools and support programs can provide extra resources for students who may need them to graduate and be prepared for college; and finally~ we can strive to provide all students with the opportunity to apply their knowledge and realize their passions while in school. The students from Baltimore and Boston and in many other cities and districts across the country are putting their education to work and giving back to their communities in a way that allows them to create change change that benefits them and our systems of government. Through supporting them in these efforts~ we are teaching them three things: first~ that we respect their ability and capacity to contribute as members of our system~ not just as consumers of it; secondly~ that their ideas are worth hearing and they are worth engaging as intellectual beings; and finally~ that they can have power and ownership now and through education and hard work~ they may find fulfilling purpose in the same way for the rest of their lives.

This content was originally published by Tarsi Dunlop on Learning First Alliance's blog and is posted here with permission.