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John Monfredo: Chronic Absenteeism And What We Can Do About It

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Statistics show that students with more than 20 absences per year have less than a 1-in-5 chance of graduating. By ninth grade, school attendance is a better predictor of graduation than eighth-grade test scores, according a study by the University of Chicago.

Nationwide, research shows that chronic absenteeism (absent more that 10% of the school year or over 18 days) is most prevalent among low-income students. Data shows that chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first grade. The impact is twice as great for students from low-income backgrounds. In kindergarten, the necessary readiness skills and foundations for learning are not there due to the child missing too many days. Therefore, one of the ways to address the achievement gap and prepare our students for success in school is to make sure our students are in the classroom and learning.

All students, but especially students in poverty, benefit the most from being in school. Thus one of the most effective strategies for providing pathways out of poverty is to do all that it takes to get these students in school every day. This alone, even without improvements in the American education system, will drive up achievement, high school graduation, and college attainment rates.

"You want to improve test scores? Get your kids to show up," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a policy group focused on chronic absence and a strong advocate on this issue. She went on to say, "You can innovate all you want, but if the kid’s not there, the benefit from the innovation is going to have limited impact."

The bottom line is that students need to attend school regularly to succeed. This may seem obvious, but the overwhelming data about under-performing schools and the failures of the public schools can lead people to believe that missing some school days won’t matter much. But the emerging evidence argues the opposite.

Experts in the field have stated that many school districts don’t even recognize they have a problem with chronic absenteeism because of the way attendance is measured. Typically, schools track average daily attendance. That approach means a few students with perfect attendance can mask the absences of those who miss many days.

The Worcester Public Schools, as with all of our urban centers, does have an issue with chronic absenteeism. Figures in Worcester show 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%, our Middle Schools have an attendance rate of 94.4% and our High Schools have a rate of 92.4%. Those figures look fine but when you delve into the data further you find that 15.2% of low-income students system-wide were absent over 10% of the time. On the elementary level 10.5% were absent more than 10% of the school year. The middle school and high school level was much higher with 12.9% on the middle school level and an astounding 20.8% on the high school level. So even in a school of 300 students with 95% average daily attendance, 30% of the students, or 90 children, could be missing nearly a month of school over the course of the school year.

In addition 58% of our schools have students absent over 10% of the time. Of those figures 79% of those students have either received a warning or needs improvement on their test scores in English Language Arts and the percentage of failure is higher in math.

The Worcester Public Schools do address this issue with guidelines in their policy book for parents and students to read. The policy states the importance of attendance and says, “The earlier a child learns that school is her/his job and that she/he has something important to do, the more satisfactory will her/his growth and development.” Parents are asked to report each absence by telephone prior to the absence or by written note within two days. Fourteen absences per year are considered excessive, and after five unexcused absences the school notifies the parent and a meeting is requested. When a child accumulates nine or more unexcused absences within an academic quarter the school may file a Child in Need of Services truancy application with the Juvenile Court. In addition, depending on the circumstance the school may file a 51A report of educational neglect with the Department of Children and Families. On the secondary level fifteen days will result in the student not receiving credit for the course. More information on this policy can be seen in the Worcester Public Schools policy book or you may go to their website and get additional information.

So why are students missing school? We don’t have that data in Worcester but it’s essential that we do have a plan in the future to find out. Nationally, research states that students stay away from school due to illness, bullying, and unsafe situations on the way to school. In addition, some students avoid school because of lack of clean clothes to wear, afraid of being embarrassed if they have to read a report or because they lack the proper clothes to wear on a rainy or cold day. Schools also report that some parents who have settled here from other countries bring their child back to their native homeland during the holidays and thus extend their child’s vacation time and miss a considerable amount of school. Sometimes lack of transportation, homeless issues, family needs, or laziness or a lack of commitment on the part of a parent may also be factors in this equation.

This problem is so acute across the nation that this summer at a Mayor’s conference there was a call to action to reduce chronic absenteeism in our nation’s schools. At the meeting Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg launched a new public ad campaign to fight chronic absenteeism and truancy, kicking off the largest effort in the nation to inform parents those students who routinely miss school are more likely to drop out. The resolution called for all school systems to raise public awareness and concern about the dire impact of chronic absence, encouraged schools to publish chronic absenteeism data and make attending school a priority for their school system.

As a former principal in Worcester I could not agree more. We need to call attention to this problem and make this a top priority in our schools. We do have a good plan in the Worcester Public Schools but we need to do more.

As a school committee member I’d like us to consider the following:

  • Establish a task force of the mayor’s office and the school administration to combat absenteeism and review the current policy and make the necessary changes.
  • Have a public media campaign about the importance of attending school and reach out the inter-faith groups, social agencies, and to all PTO’s in our schools. Use data to explain the urgency of this campaign. For additional resources involve the United Way and corporate sponsors in the campaign.
  • Have parents report as to why their child is absent and collect the data. The development of a diagnostic capacity to track absenteeism is needed. In addition, work on ways of addressing the issues such as lack of clothing, food, etc. Involve social agencies in this process.
  • Flag students who are chronically absent. Start an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for those students at risk as we do for Special Education Students.
  • Establish bench marks to improve attendance of chronic absenteeism for our school system. Let’s reduce the percentage by 5% for next year. An effort needs to be made to have a close, often weekly, measurement of tracking absenteeism.
  • Consider incentives for those with good attendance or build those incentives into their IEP.
  • Work with homeless shelters and have them as part of the solution.
  • Be sure that all schools understand the purpose of the campaign on chronic absenteeism and have them be pro-active in addressing the issue.
  • Utilize school attendance incentives such as attendance ceremonies, special trips for those students with high attendance and rewarding parents whose children regularly attend.

Monitoring absenteeism starting in kindergarten or preschool can be an effective strategy for identifying and addressing educational and family issues early on before problems become more challenging to tackle. Research strongly states that children will not have the opportunity to reach their potential unless they are present at school, starting in kindergarten.

Although families, especially those with limited resources, face significant challenges in getting their children to school. Attending school must be a priority for the community. There should be a partnership within the community with everyone working on addressing the assortment of barriers that many children face such as a lack of transportation to access health care opportunities. Making positive changes with attendance will lead to better parent engagement in other aspects of a child’s education.

In conclusion, this issue will not go away by itself and will need a community effort to resolve it. Let’s get the ball rolling now and start planning. 


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