Chronic absenteeism: Why do so many kids miss so much school and what can be done?

JoBeth Allen is a professor emeritus in the University of Georgia department of language and literacy education. Her  area of research for the past 10 years has been family-school partnerships that support student learning. Most recently, she and seven teachers  wrote a book on one highly effective kind of partnership: "Family Dialogue Journals," published by Teachers College Press this spring.

By JoBeth Allen

The kids are in school. That means it’s time for educators to worry about kids who are not in school.

Soon we’ll see horrific headlines like “Georgia woman shackled over son’s school absences” (AJC 5/26/15) and “Student truancy can spell $1,000 fine, jail for parents” (AJC 12/18/11). Or perhaps policy makers will take a different approach: “State education board allows more excuses for student absence” (AJC 5/8/15).

According to a 2013 study by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, poor attendance is detrimental to almost all students; it disproportionately damages students affected by poverty and those from communities of color. The deleterious effects begin early. Students who are chronically absent in kindergarten are more likely to be retained in third grade; students who are retained are 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school.

According to the NAEP report, a primary strategy for addressing excessive absenteeism is to “help schools and community partners to intervene with chronically absent students through community-wide approaches to health and transportation challenges, as well as personalized outreach.”

Let’s look more closely at one of those challenges: illness.

Asthma is the single largest cause of student absenteeism, and children in low-income homes not only get asthma more frequently and more severely than children in middle and high income home, and they are less able to afford treatment. (AJC File.)

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

According to Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, asthma is the single largest cause of student absenteeism, and children in low-income homes not only get asthma more frequently and more severely than children in middle and high income home, and they are less able to afford treatment. Further, children affected by poverty are five times more likely than more affluent children to have high lead levels in their blood, have twice as many severe and uncorrected vision problems, and have three times as many untreated cavities. How does a kid with a toothache learn? How often are children in local schools absent because of asthma?

What if parents, educators, and students investigated the effects of such health issues in our schools, and came up with a way to decrease health-related issues and thus increase school attendance and learning?

One community – one of the poorest in California – did just that. In Contra Costa County, the average Verde Elementary School student missed one out of every nine school days. Not surprisingly given high poverty and absenteeism, VES ranked the lowest of 6,209 schools on the statewide Academic Performance Index in 2000.

The principal pulled together school staff, county agencies (Departments of Employment and Human Services, Health Services, Probation), community organizations, and VES students and their families to establish the VIP (Verde Involving Parents) program. They assessed the complex problems affecting the children and developed several inter-agency strategies including Parent-to-Parent Outreach and Assistance.

Parent-to-Parent was staffed by Family Partners. These were parents of VES children with strong school attendance records, parents living in the same neighborhoods as children with poor attendance records who the school paid to work several hours a week. Family Partners helped their friends and neighbors - grandparents, parents, and other caregivers - who needed assistance in getting their children to school. They picked up students in their cars or on foot and brought them to school when necessary.

Once the children were at school, Family Partners called or made home visits to all families of absent or tardy students. The purpose of the calls and visits wasn’t to browbeat or threaten parents with jail, as some districts do. Rather, they talked parent to parent (or grandparent, or caregiver) to find out what was keeping the child from attending school regularly. They offered their help in contacting the health and other resources needed to address the underlying problems.

For example, one student was chronically absent because she had headaches and toothaches. Her mother explained this to the Family Partner who contacted the Family Service Center’s Public Health nurse who arranged a dentist’s appointment that very day. Once her badly infected teeth were treated, the child was able to return to school. Other children received glasses, inhalers, and other health support through agencies that already existed for those very purposes.

So did it make a difference? You bet it did. The VIP Program reduced unexcused absences by a monthly average of 72 percent during its first year, and Verde students made major gains on the state Academic Performance Index.

The relevant lesson is that people came together from multiple agencies to address a complex problem, and the primary stakeholders – families – were integrally involved in finding and staffing solutions. The caring and competent teachers, administrators, and parents in APS and throughout Georgia can undoubtedly find wise, just, and effective ways of reducing the root causes of absenteeism and supporting families as partners in their children’s education.