Too many classroom seats empty when school returns
Students report back to most of our local education institutions on Wednesday. Many of their seats will be empty.
That’s because holidays are notorious times for attendance to slump. Every year, absences spike in the weeks before and after the winter holiday as families squeeze in a few more vacation days. The same pattern emerges around spring break and over long holiday weekends.
Attendance is a topic usually reserved for fall’s back-to-school rush. September is Attendance Awareness Month and enrolled students across Florida public schools are counted in October.
But winter and spring are the seasons when absences accelerate, and when chronic absences begin to surface as alarming problems that can hold students back.
It’s the first day of school all over again.
All families want what is best for their children, but they don’t always realize how absences can stack up, resulting in real academic problems.
Missing just two days of school per month can set a student back one to two years of learning, according to a new Attendance Works report, which also finds that students who miss the most school have the lowest test scores. This statistic is true at every age, in every subject, in every racial and ethnic group and in every state and city examined. While students from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent, the ill effects of missing too much school hold true for all socio-economic groups.
How are we doing locally?
Nearly one out of 10 students in Escambia County public schools were chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year, the last year for which data is available. That’s an increase from the 7.6 percent chronic absentee rate the previous year, but on track with the Florida state average of 10.10 percent. Florida considers students who miss 21 or more days of schools as “chronically absent.”
Skipping school is not a new concern. In the late 19th century, a quarter of juveniles jailed at the Chicago House of Correction were there for truancy. As a 2017 Brookings Institution report notes, absenteeism is also a staple of our popular culture, from Tom Sawyer to Ferris Bueller.
At Achieve Escambia, our partners recognize that school attendance is no laughing matter. Attendance behaviors start early. That’s why we’re embracing the message, “Early and Often.”
Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school. Those that do graduate are less likely to be ready for college, and students who require remedial courses in college are less likely to graduate.
It’s time to break that cycle.
Through our kindergarten readiness network, the Achieve Escambia Preschool Success Task Force is embarking on a collective impact campaign that will use data to drive strategy around attendance, putting the spotlight on the importance of regular attendance, from prekindergarten all the way up to graduation, college and career.
While we’re working on this campaign, what can you do to help students finish strong through the end of the school year?
There’s an emerging body of research pointing to what works. We need more caring, trained adults who can serve as mentors in our schools and connect to chronically absent students. We also need more social workers and psychologists on school campuses to address the factors driving chronic absenteeism. Collaborating with local charities and agencies to address chronic absenteeism can also be effective. The Nashville school district has joined forces with the city’s after-school program to share student demographic data and results on interim tests, with great results. The program identifies students who are struggling academically and pairs them with tutors to receive additional learning. School and city leaders in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have launched an advocacy and training campaign for educators that has resulted in a 25 percent drop in absenteeism and an increase in student test scores.
Inspired by results like this, our local campaign will target what’s driving chronic absenteeism in Escambia County - the reasons why students are absent from class: from lack of awareness that kids need to be in school every day, to medical issues, social-emotional issues and trauma stemming from abuse, neglect, homelessness and other factors.
By using data as a mechanism to drive change, our partners in collective impact will develop a strategic vision that recognizes the reasons why students are absent from class, and what we as a community can do about it.
When our teachers, principals, policymakers, business leaders and others have access to robust data on the extent and nature of an issue as serious as chronic absenteeism, we are all in a better position to provide students with the supports they need to stem this crisis in our schools.
Kimberly Krupa is director of Achieve Escambia. She can be reached at email@example.com.