Chronic Absenteeism Hits 10% in Utah As Schools Weigh Solutions

A recent report from Voices for Utah Children found that more than 1 in 10 children in the state are chronically absent.

Almost 36,000 students, or 12% of all students within the state, missed classes during the 2012-2013 school year on a routine basis.

"If kids aren't there, they can't benefit from what's being taught in the classroom," said Hedy Chang, director of the national initiative Attendance Works. "We know that you have to have attendance every day to get to achievement every year in order to get to attainment over time."

Attendance Works is a national initiative whose goal is to promote attendance and therefore decrease chronic absenteeism in public schools.

A child is considered chronically absent after missing 10% or more of the school year, amounting to about 18 days. A student's number of absences has a direct correlation to determining student success.

"It is a low-cost or no-cost strategy to reduce the achievement gap," said Karen Crompton, president and CEO of Voices for Utah Children. "We see the outcomes on reading scores, math and language test scores. It makes a huge difference."

The study focused on elementary school years because that is when attendance habits are formed, Crompton said. The report also keeps absenteeism rates separate from daily attendance, which can often offer a misleadingly positive view when looking at the number of children attending class on any given day.

All 41 school districts in the state showed daily attendance rates higher than 90%. However, chronic absenteeism in each district ranged from 3.9 – 35.5%.

"If you're only looking at average daily attendance, you can think everything's good," Crompton said. "But everything is not good in every school."

According to Chang, it is important to catch chronic absenteeism early on and intervene on an individual basis to boost student attendance. Schools that show the most success in turning absentee numbers around track student attendance and offer help to those who need it early on in the school year.

"The attendance you have in the very first month of school puts you at risk for the entire year," she said. "If you don't have enough resources to talk to every single kid, use your data to find out which kids to talk to."

One suggestion by educators to help students in need is to place attendance information on report cards so that parents can have a clearer view pertaining to how closely attendance is related to school performance.

However, some parents disagree, saying the report does not offer a separation between excused and unexcused absences, therefore not considering any worthwhile reasons a parent may have for pulling their student out of school.

There is also concern relating to where attendance initiatives may turn, siting examples in other states where students are required to attend summer school programs or even face criminal consequences for missing school.

"Education operates best when it operates on a model of opportunity, not compulsion, and where these attendance initiatives are pushing is compulsion," said parent Autumn Cook. "They're all pushing this idea that you have to have your bottom in the seat to succeed and it's not true."

09 22, 2014
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