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John Monfredo: Addressing Absenteeism in the Early Grades

Saturday, July 07, 2012


The early years in a child’s educational career are critical and parents need to ensure that their child attend school on a regular basis. While many think of chronic absenteeism as a secondary school problem, research is beginning to suggest that the start of elementary school is the vital time to deal with absenteeism—particularly as those programs become more academic.

Early grade level attendance is essential; this is where you really want to work on developing good work habits. Unfortunately, many times parents don’t see the harmful affect this has on a child’s development.

Students need to attend school daily to succeed. Achievement, especially in math, is very sensitive to attendance, and absence of even two weeks during one school year matters.

Attendance also strongly affects standardized test scores and graduation and dropout rates. Educators and policymakers cannot truly address the achievement gaps or efforts to close them without considering chronic absenteeism.

If the child is not in school he’s not learning! How much money do we spend in a school system on going after absenteeism in high school—getting our students back and reengaged—as opposed to making sure that our students don’t slip off in elementary school?

Yet statistics show that rates of absenteeism in kindergarten and 1st grade can rival those in high school. An average of one in 10 students younger than grade 3 nationwide is considered chronically absent if they are missing 10 percent or more of school. That’s about 18 days in a normal 180 day year.

In all grades, the lower the family income, the higher the absenteeism rates. According to the Casey foundation, which has stepped up its focus on attendance in recent years, the problem is particularly acute among students from low-income families. The foundation reports that, in 2009, more than one in five kindergartners from low-income families was chronically absent, compared to only 8 percent of young students living above the poverty line. Among homeless students, absenteeism can be even more common and in Worcester with a homeless population of 10 percent, the absentee rate is high.

Reducing absenteeism is important because studies link it to an increased likelihood of poor academic performance, disengagement from school and behavior problems. Moreover, research by the National Center for Children in Poverty shows that the same risk factors that make students more likely to become chronically absent, such as poverty-related mobility or an unstable home life, only serve to intensify the problems caused by missing school.

In Worcester, system-wide… 3102 students (12.9) per cent were absent more than 10 percent of the school year in 2011. Among low-income students 2623 (15.2 percent) were absent more than 10 percent of the school year. This compares to 7 percent for non-low income students in Worcester.

For low-income students in the kindergarten, 19.7 percent were absent more than 10 percent of the time and for non-low income students in the kindergarten the figure was 6.0 percent. In the elementary grades, K-6, 10.5 percent of the students in low-income were absent more than 10 percent of the time. In contrast only 2.9 percent of non-income students were absent more than 10 percent of the time.

As you can see from the figures in Worcester we are not any better than the national statistics when it comes to low-income students being absent. If we look at the overall statistics our Elementary Schools have an attendance rate of 95.2 percent, our Middle Schools have an attendance rate of 94.4 percent and our High Schools have a rate of 92.4 percent. Those figures look fine but when you delve into the data further you find that 15.2 percent of low-income students system-wide were absent over 10 percent of the time. On the elementary level 10.5 percent were absent more than 10 percent of the school year. So even in a school of 300 students with 95 percent average daily attendance, 30 percent (or 90) of the students could be missing nearly a month of school over the course of the school year

Sometimes no one pays attention to the elementary students when they are missing so much school. Hendy N. Chang, an early-absenteeism researcher and the director of Attendance Counts located in San Francisco, said high kindergarten absences are the norm nationwide, but tend to get less attention from educators and policymakers than secondary school truancy. Ms. Chang stated that pre-school and kindergarten absenteeism may be even more prevalent nationwide because in many states kindergarten attendance is not mandatory and perhaps many parents may not understand how early-learning curriculum has changed in recent years for in the kindergarten today our children are learning to read.

So does absenteeism affect academic growth in those early years? Definitely, for the National Center for Children in Poverty found that on average, students who missed 10 percent or more of school in kindergarten scored significantly lower in reading, math and general knowledge tests at the end of 1st grade than did students who missed 3 percent or fewer days.

Going to school regularly in the early years as this article points out is especially critical for children living in poverty for they are less likely to have the resources to make up for lost time in the classroom. Among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of 5th grade. The bottom line is if children aren’t in school, they don’t learn. Improving school attendance improves success in school.

Does missing school matter? Here’s what researchers have found:

  •  In a nationally representative data set, chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first grade. The impact is twice as great for students from low-income families.
  • A Baltimore study found a strong relationship between sixth-grade attendance and the percentage of students graduating on time or within a year of their expected high school graduation.
  • Chronic absenteeism increases achievement gaps at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
  •  Because students reared in poverty benefit the most from being in school, one of the most effective strategies for providing pathways out of poverty is to do what it takes to get these students in school every day.

The National Civic League with its All American Award contest has it right for they are asking school districts to consider in their application for the campaign “For Grade Level Reading by the end of grade three” to consider three areas…Chronic Absenteeism, Summer Reading Loss, and School Readiness. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading—a collaborative effort by dozens of funders and spearheaded by the National Civic League to ensure more children master reading by the end of third grade—recognizes chronic elementary absenteeism as a significant problem that must be addressed and this issue is related to literacy.

You have the facts about absenteeism and how important it is for school success. The question is what can we do about it? The Worcester Public Schools does have an attendance policy and is aligned with the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s established attendance criteria of 95%. In the elementary grades there is an understanding that parents and the school need to work together in encouraging pupil attendance. In Worcester, after five unexcused absences, the school should be notifying the parents in writing of the district’s policy and if needed schedule a meeting with the parents. When a student accumulates nine or more unexcused absences within an academic quarter, the school may file for appropriate action with the Juvenile Court.

The school nurse can also play an important role in addressing absenteeism. The school nurse has a multi-faceted role within the school setting, one that supports the physical, mental, emotional, and social health of students and their success in the learning process. Most importantly, providing a nursing service for these students allows them to attend school and reach their maximum potential. A suggestion would be to ask our nurses to make more home visits. More importantly, the school district needs to review its absenteeism policy.

The key to reversing absenteeism is to reach those parents with children “at risk” and make them realize the importance of school in the early grades and work with them on issues of health and other factors that are interfering with their child attending school. I believe that all school systems need to start by identifying elementary schools with average daily attendance rates at or below 95 percent to collect information about chronic absenteeism and act upon it. Schools need to do more reaching out to families with chronic absenteeism and more effort needs to be done in the establishment of active PTO’s in our inner city schools. In Worcester we should have a City-wide Title I parent group meeting monthly and address these issues. In addition, parent liaisons, guidance counselors, administrators and school committee members need to pay closer to attention to chronically absent students, particularly in the early years.

It is most important that everyone take this issue seriously and make it a priority for our school system. Getting our students to school, even without improvements in the American education system will drive up achievement, high school graduation, and college attainment rates. That’s how important the issue of absenteeism is to our educational system.


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