Monfredo: Addressing Chronic Absenteeism in Worcester Schools
Saturday, March 15, 2014
Research shows that improving student attendance is an essential, cost-effective but often overlooked strategy for ensuring our students are on track to learn and succeed. Nationwide, as many as one out of ten students is chronically absent, meaning they miss ten percent or more of the school days or nearly a month. Chronic absence is a leading early warning indicator of academic trouble and later dropout.
It is an area that many times gets overlooked. 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, too. Overall, our chronically absent students have dropped from 15% in 2011 to 11.6 in 2013. However, much more work needs to be done! Thus, the district is seeking assistance from the community and is alerting community partners about this issue.
Data shows that our biggest percent of chronically absent students are in PreK and Kindergarten with over 15 % and still high in grade one at 9.4%. Then there is a drop until one gets to grade 8 (11.8 percent) and continues to peak from Middle School to High School with numbers over 17% on the average.
Prevention is a key to this problem. In this issue I will concentrate first on the early years and in a later article I will address the middle and high school years. Research shows that one in ten children in the kindergarten and first grade are chronically absent. Two out of ten low income children miss too much school and are also more likely to suffer academically. In addition, with low income children and transient children, the figures are much higher.
In the early grades it is essential for our children to be there for they miss out on readiness reading activities, learning to read, and in acquiring good math skills. Not surprising but data from other areas of the country found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were far less likely to read proficiently at the end of the third grade. In Worcester students in English Language Arts who were chronically absent when taking the grade three tests had a 70% needs improvement rate and a 10% failure rate by the end of grade three. Low income students who were chronically absent had an 18.4% failure rate. In math the failure rate for low-income students at the end of grade three was at 47.8% with non low income at 30%. Obviously, math is a subject that one needs to be in school for the learning is cumulative.
These statistics are startling and much more work needs to be done. "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 are not there, the benefit from the innovation is going to have limited impact." One more statistic from Ms. Chang… for children who attend kindergarten less than 80% of the time, only 45% are proficient in reading and math at the grade three levels.
What can be done in early education? Many parents don’t realize how quickly early absences can add up to academic trouble. It’s important that community members and our schools educate families and build a culture of attendance through early outreach, incentives and showing of the data. That’s is why we need to involve the community… our health providers, social agencies, inter-faith groups, and those agencies responsible for sponsoring immigrants coming into Worcester all need to be at the table.
Health concerns are an issue in Worcester and to address this problem the school has teamed up with UMASS medical and has pilot programs for students with asthma. In addition, transportation issues are being addressed by Dr. Marco Rodrigues from the Worcester Public Schools. Worcester also has two programs that aid in absenteeism. One is “Fresh Start” for its goal is to be available as a resource to assist families in improving their child’s attendance thus preventing the need to file an Adult Failure to Cause Attendance and a 51A. The other program is called ESSIP (Elementary/Secondary School Intervention Program) which is a preventative program to address habitual attendance and behavioral concerns with students in the district. In collaboration with district’s community partners (DCF and Juvenile Probation, parents have the opportunity to problem solve without having to engage in formal court proceedings.
According to the research school systems need to strengthen after-school programs. Students in after-school programs attend more school than their peers, according to some research. I would also suggest that we continue to diligently in monitor our early learning attendance and flag students early on who are chronically absent or on the path to becoming so. After each report card, publicly report on school level attendance rates. Thus, we can target resources and identify where the help is needed. We should be sure that all schools have implemented the Early Warning System and work with community partners to assist those schools in need of reaching out to the parents. The Early warning system should be part of an intervention strategy.
We should also encourage all schools to celebrate good attendance at their school in a variety of ways… assembly, notice on the intercom, names in the monthly newsletter or letters to parents of children with good attendance. In the early grades stickers are a big hit with the children too.
Research also suggests that parents consider the following:
• Set a regular bed time and morning routine
• Lay out clothes and pack backpacks the night before
• Find out what day school starts and make sure your child has the required shots
• Introduce your child to her teachers and classmates, if possible, before school starts to help in the transition
• If your child seems anxious about going to school, talk to teachers, school counselors, or other parents for advice on how to make him feel comfortable and excited about learning
• Develop back-up plans for getting to school if something comes up. Call on a family member, a neighbor, or another parent
• Avoid medical appointments and extended trips when school is in session.
• If your child is absent, work with the teacher to make sure he or she has an opportunity to learn and make up for the academics missed.
According to the National Center for School Engagement the best practices for attendance are the following:
• Monitoring and rewarding good attendance is supported by consistent and accurate tracking of absences and timely follow-up with students, and incentives and rewards are provided to recognize good/improved attendance.
• Clear expectations of students, families and school staff roles are understood and contracts are developed to support student attendance.
• Outreach to families and communities emphasizing the importance of school attendance and family involvement in the education of children and youth.
• Effective policies in the schools to promote attendance are developed, implemented and evaluated.
Curbing chronic absenteeism in our city can be a key driver to achievement, higher graduation rates, college attainment and to better economic development. It all starts in the early grades and we as a community need to be part of this process for the future of our children depends on us.
Related Slideshow: Central Mass Schools with the Highest Graduation Rates
Non-grad completers: Students that have successfully completed school according to local requirements, but whose MCAS test scores (scores lower than 220) prevent them from receiving an official diploma.
Students in cohort: Number of students eligible to graduate in 2013.
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