Addressing the Needs of Students who are Chronically Absent from School
By: Chris Woolard
The end of August is always a bittersweet time of year as the end of summer combines with the excitement and nervousness of a new school year. I still get butterflies, and I know how anxious my own kids are for the new challenges ahead. My three are so excited about going to school (maybe not so much the earlier alarm clock), but they are ready to go.
One issue that has been getting more attention, not only in Ohio but nationally, is the importance of addressing the needs of students who miss a significant amount of school. It may be common sense that students need to be in school, but data and research is starting to add much more insight into just how important it is. Students are missing more and more instructional time, and it’s having a very real impact on the way that our students are able to learn, grow and be successful.
Every day can’t feel like that first day, but every day is still important
Chronic absence is more than just attendance, as it focuses on students who miss a significant amount of instruction. In Ohio, we define it as students who miss more than 10 percent of the days in a school year. This adds up. It could be two days of every month or longer stretches throughout the year, but regardless, that translates into big chunks of missed instructional time. A student who habitually misses a day here and there but adds up to 20 days over the course of a year may have much different needs than a student who misses three straight weeks of school. This makes it a challenge for students to keep up and for teachers to be able to keep pace. Chronically absent students are less likely to be readers in the early grades and less likely to graduate. In some parts of our state, nearly one-third of students are chronically absent.
There are many reasons why students are chronically absent beyond just illness — bullying, homelessness and other family situations to name a few. But there are many more reasons why students may not be regularly present in school. These are serious issues that require community efforts across sectors to address.
Across the country, many schools and organizations are coordinating efforts to help communities address their unique concerns. There are some fantastic examples of schools working with community partners to provide dental clinics, after-school programs and mental health services. Cleveland’s recent campaign included support from the Cleveland Browns and focused on students who were missing a few days of school per month.
The U.S. Department of Education recently released a toolkit to help guide the conversation with health care providers, juvenile justice authorities, nonprofits and other community partners. Attendance Works is a project working with many states and districts to help develop proactive strategies. Its effort to call attention to these issues through September Attendance Awareness month includes many resources and promotional materials.
What can communities do? Attendance Works has created a list of 10 things communities can do to help address chronic absenteeism. But it starts with making sure that school attendance is a priority for your own children. You also can get involved in your neighborhood schools and see what they need. Help students find ways to connect school to their passions. Volunteer as a mentor, support a club or offer to drive a carpool in your neighborhood. Every school is unique and will have different needs, but the common thread is that the school should be a place where students are safe, supported and engaged in classroom instruction.
As a parent, I know how disruptive it is to our family schedule when one my kids misses a day or two of school and the work that goes into getting back to our routine. As a state, we want all Ohio students to be ready for success when they graduate from our schools. With data, we can understand some of the factors that can be hurdles for that goal. Chronic absence is one of those hurdles. We are looking closely at the data to better understand how many students are chronically absent, why they are chronically absent and what we can do to get them back in class.
Chris Woolard is senior executive director for Accountability and Continuous Improvement for the Ohio Department of Education. You can learn more about Chris by clicking here.