Obama Administration Tries to Tackle Chronic Absenteeism


Chronic absenteeism is battering America's education system — and the Obama administration is looking to do something about it.

Education policymakers define a student as a chronic absentee when he or she misses 10 percent (about 18 school days) or more of the school year. Over 7.5 million students nationwide can be classified as chronic absentees.

Absenteeism is correlated with low academic achievement and dropping out of school. Students who regularly miss school are also more susceptible to getting into trouble. For example, 79% of students in New York City's juvenile justice system had records showing chronic absenteeism.

"By the time you get to high school and you've missed a month of school, you're on the track to dropping out," says Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center.

The Obama administration, however, believes it can effectively combat the problem. Writing for Slate, Alexandria Neason notes that out of the over 10,000 school districts nationwide, half of the chronic absentees – roughly 3 million students – live in just 65 of those districts. Since the problem is so highly concentrated, President Obama thinks that it can be remedied.

Research demonstrates that mentorship programs serve as deterrents to absenteeism. Analysts discovered through a pilot program in 100 schools that New York City students paired with in-school mentors were 52 times more likely to remain in school than students without mentors. Accordingly, the Obama administration announced plans to connect more than 1 million students who have a history of absenteeism with mentors.

Jesse Holland of the Washington Times writes that the Success Mentors Initiative will launch in 10 cities: Austin, Boston, Columbus, Denver, Miami-Dade, New York City, Philadelphia, Providence, San Antonio, and Seattle. CBS Miami reports that mayors like Miami-Dade's Carlos Gimenez are happy to accept the support from the federal government to combat student absenteeism.

"Given this call to action, Miami-Dade County is happy to accept President Obama's My Brother's Keeper Community Challenge," Mr. Gimenez said at a community summit. Nearly 200 mayors and community leaders in 43 states have accepted President Obama's challenge of improving conditions for struggling students.

The Initiative, part of a larger program designed to support and mentor at-risk young men of color called My Brother's Keeper, will work to train adults to meet with low-income students between the sixth and ninth grades three times a week. These mentors will be coaches, educators, AmeriCorps volunteers, and tutors.

"Missing school means missing out on the only chance of success that most children have," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said.

The second part of the Initiative is to educate parents and communities about the dangers of absenteeism. The Ad Council intends to launch a multimillion-dollar public awareness campaign targeting parents and younger children about the consequences of missing school. The campaign will include billboards, bus advertisements, posters, and a website with a student absence tracker.

Interestingly, few states and cities track students' absentee records. The awareness campaign will strive to convince students, educators, and parents of the risks absenteeism poses to students and, ideally, will inspire them to combat the problem before students reach junior high.

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