With a new school year underway, one of the major issues my school district will be tackling is one that is a growing problem across the United States, chronic absenteeism. Since the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act “fifth indicator” mandate of absenteeism, more and more states are tracking and reporting absences, and that is shedding light on just how much of a problem it has become. In New York State, a staggering 28 percent of schools are experiencing extreme chronic absence levels according to an analysis done by Attendance Works taking data from the 2015-16 school year. In my district, schools rated between significant to extreme absence levels (15 percent – 24 percent).
Attendance Works defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 or more days of school annually, whereas the state of New York uses the more commonly used measure of 18 days or more, or two days a month of excused or unexcused absences.
In New York City, the rate of chronic absenteeism is 26 percent; at Renewal Schools, the struggling group that comprises Mayor de Blasio’s $582 million improvement program, 36 percent of students are chronically absent.
Of additional concern is that chronic absenteeism is emerging as an equity issue. In my district, data from last year showed a disproportionate level of absenteeism among minority and socioeconomically-disadvantaged students who often face more hurdles getting to school due to issues such as transportation and housing instability.
Chronic absenteeism matters to the future success of our children because being present in the classroom is vital to receiving the consistent instruction they need to build on basic skills like reading and the help they need to become proficient in the subject matter. It is also a key factor in predicting graduation rates, college readiness and enrollment.
In fact, a study of Baltimore City Public Schools found that chronic absenteeism was the strongest predictor of sixth grade students not graduating high school. And an analysis of Rhode Island data showed that only 11 percent of high school students with chronic absences made it to their second year of college compared to 51 percent of students who didn’t miss much school.
One school district actively working to change this dynamic is the Grand Rapids, Michigan public school system. Through its Challenge 5 campaign which began in 2014, the district has been motivating students, parents and the community to work together to keep kids in school by engaging them through a variety of initiatives both inside and outside of the classroom. The campaign includes Parent Action Leaders who serve as liaisons between families and schools as well as a prominent web and social media presence and public service announcements. As a result of this ongoing effort, chronic absenteeism in the district has been reduced by nearly 36 percent.
California’s Santa Ana Unified School District is focusing on getting to the root of the problem by tracking attendance data to spot trends among students. The district has hired eight new employees to work as community liaisons, focusing on the broader factors that can lead to absences. Money through the state’s unique Local Control Funding Formula has enabled many districts, particularly those serving low-income students, to bolster support and attendance-focused staff.
And in the Little Rock School District in Arkansas, community organizations are partnering to take on the absenteeism epidemic with the Optimist Club of Greater Little Rock granting the Heart of Arkansas United Way $30,000 for a drive to reduce school absences, tardies and early student checkouts. The funding will go toward delivering catchy messages that reinforce going to school everyday via message boards in front of schools, school open houses, social media and upcoming community walks.
Now that the issue of chronic absenteeism is receiving heightened attention in mostly all of our states, it is important to use the data in strategic and consistent ways to keep kids in school. Understanding the variety of underlying issues at the root of the problem in individual districts will be the most critical factor to successfully addressing chronic absenteeism.
It is a challenging road ahead, but one that is critical to master in order to increase our nation’s graduation rates and develop the academic, technical, social and emotional skills our kids need to be happy, confident contributing citizens in the world.