Chronic Absenteeism…a Canary in the Coalmine

Chronic Absenteeism…a Canary in the Coalmine

This LatestCounsel was written by Cathy Holahan, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor.

Reggie was in third grade when I first met him many years ago.  His juvenile probation officer  referred him to me as his education lawyer after Reggie became involved with the juvenile court for truancy due to his many absences.  Reggie lived close to his elementary school and typically walked to school, but had still managed to miss too many days of school.   As it turned out, Reggie had severe asthma that was exacerbated by the cold air, so his mother often kept him home when the temperature dipped too low.  Once we discovered the cause of his absences, which were much higher in the winter months, we were able to quickly remedy the problem by lining up transportation through the school district and by engaging his mother on the importance of being in school every day.

As schools pass the all important “count day” and settle into their routines, teachers across the country have learned much about their students since that first day . . . which students always volunteer with their hands raised high and which hold back; which students race to finish their work and which labor over forming the perfect letters; and which students are always present and which have already missed many days of school.

There are a variety of efforts to close the achievement gap, all focusing on what happens in the classroom. Yet none of these efforts matter if children are not present. A missed day here and there translates to significant increases in what children know and are able to do. We now know that chronic absenteeism is disproportionately high among students with disabilities, low-income students, and students of color.  Addressing the issue early can help students achieve academically and contribute to closing those gaps.

Now is the time, early in the school year, to pay attention to attendance and to recognize poor attendance, or “chronic absenteeism” as a powerful predictor of potential failure and a key trigger for quick intervention. Fortunately, teachers and school administrators can draw on significant research to identify solutions.  By improving the quality of daily attendance records and analyzing the information they provide, schools can create early warning systems that target early intervention supports to the students who need it most, including mentors, home visits, referrals to health care providers and other resources, and identification of additional academic supports.

Schools and districts can also use data on chronic absenteeism rates to design targeted schoolwide or community-wide efforts.  Next spring, the federal Office of Civil Rights will release the first-ever school-level data on all students across the country who were absent at least 15 days of school for any reason.  States, districts, schools, and communities should seize this opportunity to drive systemic improvement and target systems of support.   The District of Columbia Public Schools early childhood program analyzed data on absenteeism to help improve interventions with families and raise the rate of attendance. Some states have already passed their own requirements, such as Connecticut‘s (as a Nutmegger, I can’t resist!) recent law requiring school-level chronic absenteeism data to be tracked, published, and addressed through intervention plans, which can serve as model legislation for other states.

Practicing what they preach and recognizing the complexity of the causes of absenteeism, a collective of federal agencies – ED, HHS, HUD, and DOJ – have come together, in support of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBK), and recently launched Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism to drive coordinated community action to address chronic absenteeism.  The initiative is a call to action that includes resources, activities and events, a virtual summit on November 12th, and an in-person convening for state teams once the data is released in the spring.

The initiative taps national experts Dr. Robert Balfanz of the Everyone Graduates Center of Johns Hopkins University and Hedy Chang of Attendance Works as lead partners and resources on the issue and on evidence-based interventions that have proven effective in improving attendance.

This national attention and the expertise brought to bear should drive shifts in policies and systems necessary to ensure that chronic absenteeism is recognized as an early warning indicator of longer-term issues, to ensure that attendance data is captured and analyzed, and to drive both focused individual student supports and schoolwide interventions.   Having such a system in place likely would have remedied Reggie’s absenteeism much earlier than we did . . . and prevented a referral to juvenile court.

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