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Julia Steiny: Dealing with Chronic Absenteeism in Our Schools

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcester Education Contributor

A group of para-professionals, who work in homes with challenged families, were bemoaning the difficulty of being firm with their clients about getting their kids to school every day and on time.

One exasperated woman said that she certainly isn't scrupulous about getting her own two girls to elementary school, so why nag her families? Challenged parents have much bigger fish to fry than compliance with schools’ arbitrary start-times.

The horrified guidance counselor in the room was speechless as the others, all moms, piled on revelations about their own lax standards.

Missing school a few days here and there didn’t matter, especially at the beginning and end of the year, after Christmas, or whenever everyone’s just getting settled. And, they exclaimed, the schools are nuts if they think that daily promptness in the younger grades matters. If Grandma or Auntie can care for their child, better to give the teacher a break so she has more time for the slower kids.

Before the guidance counselor burst a vein, I asked if they didn’t think that being on time and maintaining excellent attendance weren’t habits best learned early in life?

Nah, when you have a job and get paid, that’s when it matters.

Students say that too. They'll become reliable when money’s on the table. In the meantime, it’s optional, the way you might skip the gym if a fun friend asks you out for a drink.

Researchers say that this cultural devaluing of school time is one of three over-arching reasons that many students attend school so erratically.

According to a recent report, The Importance of Being in School, an estimated 5 to 7.5 million students are absent from school more than 10 percent of the time. That’s 18 days in a 180-day year, or just under a month of school time.

The other two big drivers of attendance and tardiness problems are:

* Kids can’t make it to school. Transportation difficulties, family responsibilities, like caring for their baby or an elderly relative, or illness get in the way. Baltimore researchers found that fully a third of their study’s chronically-absent elementary students had asthma, or someone in their household did.

* Lastly, some students won’t go to school. They’re bored, bullied, disconnected, or experienced so much failure they’re giving up.

I would argue, however, that all of these are cultural issues. Without letting schools, moms or the kids off the hook, as a culture, we tolerate all of the above. Sure, we look for culprits – the bullies, bad parents, dull teachers – assign guilt, insist they be punished, and wash our own hands of it. But chronic absenteeism presents a broad set of community-wide problems, not solvable one by one. Our challenge is to bring fragmented communities together with siloed public and private agencies to face the sheer scale of the problem.

School attendance is an excellent measure of the health of the community as a whole.

Absenteeism hawk Robert Balfanz, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the report, works closely with Hedy Change from Attendance Works in California.

Since only 6 states even collect hard information, these experts can only guess that between 10 to 15 percent of America’s students are chronically absent. (Rhode Island is one of them; Massachusetts is not – just to be competitive with our high-achieving sister state.)

Merely tracking an over-all attendance rate -- usually in the 90th percentile -- masks those kids who were absent 40, 50 percent of the time. Kids who miss a day or two every couple of weeks don’t raise a red flag, unless your data system can catch them.

Most importantly, whether they're chronically absent or just sauntering in late most days, these kids not only miss instructional time, but they disrupt instruction for the other kids.

Balfanz and fellow writer Vaughan Byrnes state the problem starkly:

“Because it is not measured, chronic absenteeism is not acted upon. Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered. If the evidence in this report is borne out through more systematic data collection and analysis, that havoc may have already undermined school reform efforts of the past quarter century and negated the positive impact of future efforts.”

Consider absenteeism and tardiness the broken windows of education, seemingly minor niceties that when left untended undermine all the other efforts.

But who's responsible for removing the whole collection of obstacles to school attendance, including boring classes, gangs, and asthma? The report puts it this way:

“Mayors and governors have critical roles to play in leading inter-agency task forces that bring health, housing, justice, transportation, and education agencies together to organize coordinated efforts to help every student attend every day.”

The thought of another municipal task force hurts. One more report to gather dust on what a friend calls her “shelf of shame;” one more group of representatives from turf-jealous agencies and community groups hoping they can get a slice of whatever money might be available.

But someone credible has to have the guts to ask publicly: what does it look like when we've got it right? If our para-professional moms aren’t sold on good attendance habits, how are they going to convince their distressed families?

Balfanz and his colleagues have thrown down quite a gauntlet. As we head back to school this year, let’s see who, if anyone, takes it up.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocal24, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 


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