Like most people I’ve always thought of truancy or chronic absenteeism as a high school phenomenon, but according to experts the problem can affect student performance at an earlier age. In some school districts, in fact, the absentee rate in kindergarten is almost as high as it is for ninth graders. The National Center for Childhood Poverty says that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students is chronically absent, although the absentee rates very significantly from district to district.
Kids miss school for different reasons, but one thing is clear; too many missed school days, whether excused or unexcused, can have a huge impact on student performance, especially among low income kids.
In an article I’m preparing for the National Civic Review, authors Hedy N. Chang and Phyllis W. Jordan describe what three school districts—Baltimore, New York and Oakland, California—are doing to address chronic absenteeism. In Baltimore, for example, the mayor’s office, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the local school district teamed up to make attendance a top community priority, enlisting a number of local organizations in a community-wide effort to bring down rates of absenteeism. Students made videos on the importance of attendance. Church members contact the families of chronically absent children to find out what the problem is. OSI-Baltimore grants focused on homeless kids and foster-children, two groups of kids that typically have high rates of absenteeism.
Baltimore’s Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School used a carrot and stick approach to create a “culture of attendance.” The principal meets with the family of every new student and emphasizes the important of attendance. The school attendance monitor calls the home of every absent student. After three days the family gets a letter. If the problem persists, the principal calls the home.
But the staff also tries to make the school environment a place where kids want to be with engaging after school programs and extras like dental clinics and haircuts for students who want or need them. Despite a mostly low income student population and pretty crowded classrooms, Franklin has one of the highest attendance rates in the district.
It seems pretty clear that focusing laser-like on a problem like absenteeism can make a big difference. But according to the authors, not everyone is looking at the right data. “Many school districts are in the dark because they don’t look at the right numbers. They look at average, school-wide attendance data, and they look at truancy, not the full range of excused and unexcused absences. Thus, they don’t know how many students are missing 10 percent of the school year, or in other words, how many students are chronically absent. Even a school with 95 percent average daily attendance can have 15 to 20 percent of its students registering high levels of absenteeism.”
Apparently Baltimore was uniquely positioned to focus on this issue in part because the state of Maryland was keeping the right kind of statistics, looking at the number of students who were chronically absent. Also, researchers at Johns Hopkins were doing work in the area of chronic absenteeism.
“Chronic absence is a problem we can fix,” note the authors, “if we look at the right data and start early enough. Schools and communities are seeing attendance rates improve within months when they monitor chronic absence data, identify barriers to attendance, and reach out to children and families help them overcome barriers to getting to school. People everywhere understand the value of school attendance, which makes it easy for city leaders to rally support for their campaigns.”
The 2012 All-America City Awards will recognize communities that have developed the most comprehensive, realistic and sustainable plans to increase grade-level reading proficiency by the end of third grade by focusing on three areas that have real potential to drive improvements in grade-level reading: school readiness, school attendance, and summer learning. To sign a letter of intent for your community to apply for the award, link here.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.