Monfredo: Awareness Issue – Dealing With Chronic Absenteeism

Saturday, March 09, 2019
John Monfredo, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER

As we move toward the last quarter of the school year it’s time that all districts reassess their data on chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism means students have been absent over 10% of the school year and that translates to being absent over 18 days for the school year.

The students who are absent the most in the Worcester Public Schools are our high school students.  On the elementary level students in the kindergarten and grade one lead the way with chronic absenteeism.  Other statistics show that male Hispanics and low-income students have a high rate of chronic absenteeism.

For educators, it goes without saying that the link between attendance and academic outcomes is abundantly clear and those children are at a greater risk of falling behind and being a school dropout.  One study showed that an incidence of chronic absenteeism in even in a single year between the 9th and the 12th grade was associated with the likelihood of dropping out of school.

It all starts in the kindergarten and grade one for those are the years of readiness skills and chronic absenteeism leads to students not being able to read on grade level by the end of grade three. Thus, with many students frustration sets in and at an early age they are turning away from school.  Absenteeism before the 3rd grade is a family issue so family involvement is essential at this level.  According to the data from the U.S. Department of Education, ”The repercussions of so many missed days are clear. Children chronically absent in the first years of elementary school are much less likely to read at grade level by age nine and they are four times as likely to drop out of high school.”  The fact is that we cannot close the achievement gap or the opportunity gap or any other grave collective ills if our children are not in school.

Now, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to report chronic absenteeism rates and do something about them.  The Worcester Public Schools is moving in the right direction with chronic absenteeism.  Even though we, as a district, have a lower rate than our gateway city districts it’s not low enough.   We are hovering close to 14% of our students being chronically absent.    As a district, under the direction of Superintendent Binienda we have a committee in place and the committee continues to monitor and make changes throughout the year on chronic absenteeism.

For some reason, many groups in the community are not taking this Nation-wide crisis serious.  Many play the blame game and blame others for students not learning or blame the schools for a child being suspended. The bottom line is if you want to improve the ability of a child to learn the child has to show up at school.  Remember you can innovate all you want, but if the children are not there the benefit from the innovation is going to have limited impact.

I would suggest that all schools create a culture of attendance. Increase awareness among parents at such programs as “Countdown to Kindergarten”, Kindergarten registration, Head Start, and at the schools “Know your School Night” in September.  The discussion MUST be ongoing for we just cannot have rallies at the beginning of the school year and think that we have done our job.  The awareness factor needs to be on-going throughout the year and into the next year.  It MUST be an on-going priority for the district.

This is an issue that I am extremely passionate about for as a former principal I know what works and improving attendance can be a game changer for our children.

Here are a few suggestions to take place now and later in June we’ll talk about an action plan for the next school year… Many have been implemented by the Worcester Public Schools…

  • Have an IEP for chronic absenteeism …Schools need to list, even now in the month of March, those students at each grade level who have a chronic absenteeism history and start putting together an individual educational plan with the teachers monitoring the progress. Consider a telephone call or an email message for every child who is absent.
  • Mentoring program – ( Most researchers encourage this approach)  Mentors could come from the community – Big Brother/Big Sister program, church groups, college students and perhaps on the high school level seniors doing a mentoring community service project with 9th graders on attendance, or even staff within the school could mentor certain students.    Research shows that students with a history of absenteeism who received a success mentor gained almost two weeks of schooling.  The district should establish guidelines for mentoring students.
  • Before and after School programs…Research shows that engaging programs before and after school can improve attendance. Also, schools should consider Community walk to school programs or walking with a buddy.
  • Prioritizing Attendance …A whole school approach should be a school-wide priority from day one and continue that effort throughout the school year.   School-wide strategies such as pep rallies, contests, and Student Success Summits at each school in the first month of the school year and throughout the rest of the year have also proven to work.   In the early grades stickers are a big hit with the children too
  • Bench Marks …All schools need to have bench marks and have ways of reducing chronic absenteeism as part of their accountability plan.  All staff members need to be on board and know the importance of this undertaking.   Principals need to be at the center of efforts to combat chronic absenteeism and use the data at hand.
  • Working with parents – consider the following:   Sending home handouts with information and tips about attendance. .. Talk with parents early and often to share the value of good attendance and let them know that you are there to help. .. Use an activity at a parent event to demonstrate the importance of avoiding absences… utilize written commitments to encourage good attendance such as a pledge or the attendance goal work sheet. Continue to provide parents "real-time data" on their children's attendance.
  • Community - partnerships among different agencies (e.g., faith-based organizations) that leverage community supports to improve attendance such as calls home and connections to community resources is needed.
  • A positive approach …Most importantly, all schools should create a climate of change… reaching out to parents with a positive telephone call, having a social event at the school, rewarding students with good behavior and attendance, and having signs at the schools that state… WE CARE ABOUT OUR STUDENTS.

 

All students, but especially at risk 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 education system will drive up achievement, high school graduation, and college attainment rates. Again, let’s keep this issue as a priority and do all that we can to eradicate chronic absenteeism.  More to come in June!

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