Mich. school districts struggle with absentee students

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
  • Many districts with high absentee rates also have high poverty rates, according to census data.

In some Michigan school districts, half or more of students are chronically absent, according to newly released state data.

In Detroit Public Schools, nearly two of three students (64.8 percent) missed at least 10 days in 2014-15, according to statistics issued Friday by the state Center for Educational Performance and Information. Michigan considers students who miss 10 or more days of school a year chronically absent.

Other districts with high rates include Benton Harbor (48.4 percent), Flint (54.2 percent), River Rouge (57.2 percent) and Pontiac (48.6 percent). All are in communities where more than a third of residents live below the poverty line, according to census data.

Rural districts are not immune. The Whittemore-Prescott Area Schools in northeastern lower Michigan, where three-quarters of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches, has a chronically absent rate of 38.5 percent.

Even some districts with less poverty struggle with high absentee rates. More than half of the districts in Wayne and Macomb counties are at 25 percent or higher, including some in relatively prosperous communities such as Wyandotte (35.4 percent) and St. Clair Shores (Lakeview Public Schools, 30.1 percent).

By contrast, the district with the lowest rate in Metro Detroit is one of the state’s wealthiest, Birmingham, where 3.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Just 12 percent of Birmingham students were chronically absent during the last school year.

A new Michigan law that takes effect in June aims to encourage attendance by allowing the state to halt welfare benefits to families whose children are chronically absent.

Supporters say the measure will force parents to be sure their children go to school; advocates for the poor and some educators say the law is punitive and will end up hurting the children it’s trying to help.

“I do not see this as a big cost-saving measure for the state of Michigan; rather, a way to encourage attendance,” said Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who sponsored the measure that became Public Act 56. “The best defense against poverty is a good education, and that only happens when a child is in class. It’s about opportunity.”

Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, D-Detroit, calls the law “punitive and wrong.”

“Public Act 56 ... deprives the other members of the family needed assistance based on the actions of just one member of the family,” she said.

Under the measure, a family would lose eligibility for cash aid if a child between 6 and 15 doesn’t meet attendance requirements. Dependent children 16 or older who haven’t graduated from high school would lose aid if they don’t meet the requirements.

Cash assistance would be restored if a student shows up for 21 straight school days. The law codifies a policy enforced since 2012 by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Officials with some of the districts with the highest absentee rates did not respond to requests for comment by The Detroit News, including Detroit, Flint and River Rouge.

District representatives interviewed by The News say they are trying to tackle problems that cause students to miss school.

Poverty can produce numerous factors that cause chronic absenteeism, said Kelley Williams, Pontiac schools superintendent.

“Some of the reasons we’ve heard are homelessness, lack of transportation, illness, not having clothes/uniforms or school supplies, parent illnesses and lack of employment,” said Williams.

“Our success coaches work with the families to identify and remove these barriers,” she said. “They can provide uniforms, or for example, if a family is homeless, they find out why, refer them to the homeless student liaison, and connect them with outside agencies that can assist.”

Staff members work with the parents of sick students to ensure children get healthy and return to classes sooner.

Chronic absenteeism in Pontiac has remained stubbornly high — its rate in 2012-13 was virtually identical, at 48.4 percent.

In the Clintondale Community Schools, building administrators reach out to students and parents when attendance falls off. Once students returns, teachers help them get back up to speed.

“Today’s teachers are placing more resources online in order to better accommodate students who have difficult circumstances and are also spending time after school to catch students up,” Superintendent Greg Green said.

The approach seems to be paying off in the Macomb County district, where the rate of chronic absences fell from 53 percent in 2012-13 to 48.7 percent in 2014-15.

Joseph Perrera, Whittemore-Prescott superintendent, said the distance some students have to travel to the rural district’s two schools may contribute to its high rate of absenteeism. The district is south of Highway 55, between West Branch and Tawas City.

“This is a beautiful area of farmland, and all of our students are bused,” he said. “So if they miss a bus and the parents can’t bring them, that can be an issue.”

Perrera added that “both principals are actively trying to communicate with parents. I do know that they reach out.”

In the Ecorse Public Schools, the rate of chronic absence edged upward from 46.2 percent in 2011-12 to 48.1 percent in 2014-15, though it’s below that of neighboring River Rouge, a community with similar demographics.

Ecorse Superintendent Thomas Parker said the district is using a holistic approach to encourage regular class attendance.

At Ecorse High School, each student meets daily with a “caring adult” who tracks attendance and helps set academic and cultural goals. In elementary schools, teachers watch attendance data and call parents to “identify how and why students are not in school,” Parker said.

The key, he added, is making students feel others care about them. “We do not do this in a negative way,” he said.

Many school officials and education experts argue that approach is more likely to boost attendance than cutting aid to the families of truant students.

“It is unfair to families with multiple children who may have one child who refuses to follow the attendance rules,” said Kevin M. Ivers, superintendent of the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency, which includes Benton Harbor schools.

Kenneth Wong, chairman of the education department at Brown University, calls withholding payments a “fairly drastic measure.”

“I am not aware that many states are taking this approach,” he said. “If Michigan is implementing this strategy, perhaps local and state agencies can build in a multistage process, which may include warnings, home visitation, coaching, community partnership, and then ultimately withholding welfare payments.”

To Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan, Public Act 56 is “misdirected.”

“... This proposal is not likely to encourage greater school attendance,” he said. “In fact, withholding welfare payments from these families is likely to increase truancy rather than produce the apparent desired consequence.”

Pscholka, the law’s sponsor, said he saw the need for state action during years of mentoring students in the Benton Harbor schools.

“Teachers complained constantly about truancy, and how they had no chance of educating the children when they were missing,” he said. “They thought this would be a great incentive for parents.”

Pscholka argues that some adults need to be persuaded to get their children to school each day: “Responsible parenting is the key to breaking this cycle.”