Julia Steiny: Chronic Absenteeism Reveals and Causes Problems

If a kid’s not listening, she’s not learning. If the kid’s not even in school, she’s certainly not listening.

Julia Steiny

Showing up every day and on time are skills absolutely necessary to success, especially at the entry level of any job or profession. Who would argue?

And yet, high absenteeism is a huge problem across the nation.

Hedy Chang, the Director of Attendance Works, says that Americans are perfectly aware that compulsory attendance at school is the law. They just don’t much care.

And no one teaches parents how to get 3 kids up, dressed, fed and out the door on time. It’s a feat. More challenging for some than others.

So Attendance Works’ mission is to help communities get their kids to school.

High absenteeism is a chronic problem that contributes to the more famous problems of low achievement and kids dropping out. Urban schools in particular are vilified for their poor academic performance, but they have limited control over whether or not the kids’ butts are in the seats. Yes, some instruction is deadly dull. But even schools with vibrant curricula, cool projects and caring adults can’t hang on to kids who have already disengaged from school, for whatever reason.

Chang’s research shows that kids start bunking school as early as 3rd and 4th grade.

So today, let’s focus on the littlest kids who have no choice about skipping school — those in kindergarten and grade one.

Nationally, one out of 10 of this very young cohort is “chronically absent,” missing more than 10 percent of school time. That’s 18 days out of a 180-day school year, about a month of school.

In Providence, Rhode Island, one third of the kindergartners are chronically absent. Rhode Island’s truancy law also says that three incidents of being tardy is supposed to add up to an absence, so even that one-third is seriously under-counted. (States have very different laws, by the way. In Maryland, truancy is missing 20 percent of school, or two months. In New York, each district has its own rules.)

The pain of it is that these kids will never make up the time. When kids are AWOL in the earliest grades, Chang says, “even if their 3rd-grade attendance is better, 5th-grade reading will still suffer. That includes kids who tested proficient when they came to K and 1. Low-income kids DEPEND on school to learn the habits that support reading.”

If a middle-schooler is disengaged, it’s absolute murder to get him back. So Chang emphasizes that the on-time-every-day habit needs be established as a non-negotiable when the child is quite young.

She cites three big reasons for chronic absenteeism among little kids.

1. Discretion. School just isn’t all that important to some parents. School’s convenient when it’s convenient.

Chang shakes her head, “Many people don’t understand how you learn a language or reading. You can explain the consequences of missing school to parents, but often they say ‘Just give me the work.’ It’s hard to convey the richness of the classroom and the powers of peer learning.”

“Discretion” is a parent problem.

2. Aversion. This one’s mostly the fault of the school. Perhaps the classroom is chaotic and therefore scary or stressful. Or the teacher is a bully and yells a lot. Kids tend to bully each other anyway at times, so that can get out of hand. And now that we’ve starved kids of time for recess, physical activity and running off steam, an otherwise great group of kids is bound to let off steam, somehow, even during class time.

Little kids can’t bunk, but they do get daily tummy aches. Those are red flags of aversion.

3. Logistical Problems. These include kids’ health, parents’ health, transportation, and so forth.

For example, when the City of Baltimore reached out to their chronically absent kindergartners and first graders, they discovered that a third of them suffered from asthma.

Also, transportation is a nightmare for many families. Some have several kids in as many schools. Many families move a lot, mainly for reasons of poverty. Space permitting, districts often transfer these mobile kids to a school closer to the new apartment, but that’s no favor to the continuity of kids’ education or relationships with friends and adults. It’s great if he can be bused to the old school, but if he misses the bus, Mom might not have a car, or the time to transport the kid herself.

So these kids start their school career by losing ground.

I’ve only touched on the problems of little kids. Attendance Works has gobs of research and information about absenteeism at all ages.

Chang strongly cautions that there’s no way you can know what the problem is until you go investigate. Dig. Find out. Don’t assume. Poor attendance unearths such an odd collection of issues that only good information can help to tailor good responses. Fortunately Attendance Works reports on solutions crafted by specific districts. Find them under “What Works.”

The bottom line is that improving the nation’s attendance rate is going to be hard, hard work. It will need a public campaign to solicit the whole community’s help. Because if the kid’s not there, all other school efforts just don’t matter.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny