A push to address chronic absenteeism among students as part of Michigan’s new federal education plan comes as the problem is getting worse.
In Michigan, 15.6 percent, or 233,582 students, from K-12 were chronically absent in 2016-17, up from the year before at 14.7 percent.
“We have a lot of kids missing a lot of school,” said Carolyn Claerhout, a truancy expert at Oakland Schools, which serves local districts in Oakland County. “We get it — that this is what we need to have districts focus on.”
State education officials define chronic absence as missing 10 percent of school. In a 180-day school year, that is 18 days.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Education require states to address chronic absenteeism under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Michigan’s ESSA plan, which was approved Nov. 28, calls for chronic absenteeism rates to be a factor in measuring school quality, said Kyle Guerrant, deputy superintendent of finance and operations with the Michigan Department of Education.
And for the first time this school year, Guerrant said, Michigan education officials are requiring all school districts to report suspension data for all student populations, not just special education, so they can review how suspensions are impacting student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates.
“It’s important that we know why kids are being suspended. It will help us have better conversations with districts; how can they better support students in a teaching way. There is a way to address behavior and keep them in school,” Guerrant said.
Education experts say chronic absenteeism, which starts as early as preschool and kindergarten, increases the likelihood that children are unable to read well by third grade, fail classes in middle school and drop out of high school.
“The reality is they are missing school, no matter what the reason is,” Guerrant said. “The data is clear on the negative outcomes. If you aren’t there, you aren’t being successful.”
As the days go by
Missing school a few days a month may not seem like much, but educators say if you do the math, it adds up. Being absent two days a month during the school year amounts to four weeks of missed instruction.
Last school year, kindergartners had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism among all grades, with seniors being close behind, according to state data. About 20.4 percent of kindergartners were chronically absent last year while 20.2 percent of seniors were, too. Fifth- and sixth-graders had the smallest group of chronically absent students at 12.9 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively.
Among all racial and ethnic groups, African-American students had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism at 31.9 percent. Students with disabilities, considered economically disadvantaged and those who were identified as homeless were also more likely to be chronically absent, according to state statistics.
Detroit has one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the state.
In the city’s public schools, more than half of the district’s students — 56.3 percent, or 27,533 students — were chronically absent last school year, a staggering number in a district already beset with record-low test scores and a teacher shortage. The year before, it was 54.8 percent.
In response to the data at Detroit Public Schools Community District, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti moved additional attendance agents directly to schools from the central office to assist in locating chronically absent students and getting them back in school.
Vitti’s staff is meeting with principals individually this school year to discuss what they are doing to improve attendance and then sharing best practices with other principals, he said.
“Starting next year, we will connect attendance to strategic plan metrics, my evaluation and principals’ evaluation ... and improve systems to take attendance with more accuracy and less time taking attendance,” Vitti said.
Starting in the 2018-19 school year, DPSCD is also launching a formal plan to address chronic absenteeism by decreasing the number of out-of-school suspensions and replacing them with in-school suspensions, Vitti said.
Shifting mentoring programs and at-school wraparound services — that address mental health, behavior and medical issues at the school site — to address chronic absenteeism will also be done, he said.
Last week, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren issued a report saying chronic absenteeism is among its priorities to improve education for the city’s schoolchildren.
DPSCD attendance agent Stephen Bland says he calls and sends emails, too, but after 20 years in the field, he has found a personal visit is best.
“There is no substitute for getting out there and hitting the ground, going to peoples’ homes,” Bland said.
Poverty is the driving factor behind chronic absenteeism at DPSCD, Bland said — kids without clothes, uniforms or coats. No transportation to school which can be miles away. Family problems that require assistance.
“Their mindset is at times to make it through another day and education gets put on the back burner. When you are in the situation, people don’t realize education is the change agent that can get you out of poverty,” he said.
The reason for absences
Experts say there are plenty of reasons that keep students from being in classrooms, from lack of transportation, illness, anxiety and suspension from school. Absences are often tied to health problems, such as asthma, diabetes, and oral and mental health issues.
Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that pushes for better policy and practice to improve school attendance, estimates that 7 million students across America are missing too much school.
Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works, said children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent and face the most harm because they lack the resources to make up for the lost learning. To compound the problem, many of the absences especially among younger students are excused.
Hedy said in the past, the mindset has been that only truancy — or unexcused absences — were a problem for students. As the issue of chronic absenteeism gets more attention nationally and in local school districts, there comes a better understanding of how all school absences are detrimental to children.
“If our kids aren’t in school, it’s pretty tough for them to succeed and thrive. Kids who are successful in school are more likely to be contributing citizens. Attendance is our earliest warning sign that kids are off track,” Chang said.
Claerhout, with Oakland Schools, said chronic absenteeism has been identified as a more important measuring stick for academic performance than truancy or daily attendance.
“We need to ask what is this barrier to education? What is happening that this parent can’t get this child to school?” Claerhout said.
Oakland Schools, an intermediate district, has been trying to raise awareness about chronic absenteeism since 1995. The county’s prosecutor, school superintendents of the 28 school districts in Oakland County, and the intermediate district have together developed an early truancy intervention program to work on the issue of children who are not regularly attending school.
Michigan has a compulsory school attendance law for children ages 6-18 that says they have to be in school continuous and consecutive.
If a local district in Oakland County cannot solve the issue, cases of chronic absenteeism are referred to the intermediate district. Claerhout gets about 1,300 referrals a year from local districts in the county seeking help with chronically absent kids. Of those, 10 percent are sent to court.
A petition in Oakland County family juvenile court can be issued to address the problem and require compliance. But the goal is never to punish; it’s to get these kids in school, Claerhout said.
If local districts can bring attendance back up, the next step is to work on attachment, such as building a relationship with an adult in the school building.
The Waterford School District has a dedicated truancy coordinator to monitor and track attendance for students. In 2012, the district created a program and a policy that informs parents of triggers when a student misses school.
Becky Staab, a truancy coordinator for Waterford School District, said she starts with a phone call to parents after five missed days of school and then a letter at seven missed days.
“It says, ‘You know we are worried here. Your child has missed school. What can we do to help you?’ ” Staab says. After 10 days, parent meetings are called at the school with parents and school officials. At 20 days, referrals are made to the county.
Educators say chronic absenteeism is more common in transitional years, such as when a child moves to middle school or high school or from kindergarten to first grade.
The reasons for missing school range from anxiety to parents who work and are unaware their child has not gone to school. In some cases, a child refuses to leave home and attend school, she said.
“Sometimes, it’s just easier to stay in bed, and no one is making them go. It really depends and is on a case by case basis. These are families we really get to know. Our language is different with each one. Our whole goal is to get them into school,” she said.