WPRI reporter Dan McGowan found that 17% of all Rhode Island students were deemed chronically absent in 2011-12, according to data provided by the Rhode Island Department of Education. "Chronically absent" is a term reserved for those students who miss at least 10% of the 180 academic school days in a year , and an astounding 29 schools reported that at least 30% of their students missed a minimum 18 days of school in 2012.
According to a study released by the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University, Rhode Island surpassed the national average for chronic absenteeism by 7%.
Six high schools had at least 50% of their students labeled chronically absent including the RYSE School in Chariho, Providence's Hope High School, Dr, Jose High School, Central High School, Mount Pleasant High School, and the Construction Career Academy in Cranston.
Middle and elementary schools are experiencing this problem, too. Records show that 30% of students at 12 elementary and middle schools are considered chronically absent.
In Central Falls, two schools saw at least 30% of their students miss at least 18 days and another school had a 23% chronic absenteeism rate. Superintendent Dr. Fran Gallo said the district had made "intensive efforts" – including hiring an attendance officer – to curb absenteeism, but it remains a problem.
Chronic absenteeism is the earliest indicator that a child may be falling behind in school or that they will eventually drop out, according to Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit organization that analyzes student attendance.
Chang said there are three primary reasons why students end up being chronically absent. The first is discretion, which means parents or guardians don't realize their kids are missing as much school as they are. Two or three days a month can go by unnoticed until the end of the year.
The second is aversion, which means the student is avoiding school because of issues such as bullying. The third reason includes barriers such as lack of transportation or illness.
It is important to know why students are missing school and to track the cause, lest students fall through the cracks.
"It's very important that students attend school regularly," Education Commissioner Deborah Gist told WPRI.com. "Students are not learning when they're not in school, and chronic absenteeism can set students far behind their peers – sometimes leading to poor performance, retention in grade, or dropping out of school."
There haven't been large strides in progress regarding chronic absenteeism, but the community awareness is on point, which will be a key factor in turning things around.
"The most effective way of improving attendance is to make sure that students feel engaged, to make learning fun and exciting so that students want to come to school," Gist said. "The question shouldn't be: How do we enforce attendance requirements? The question should be: How do we make sure our schools are places where our students want to be every day?"