Column: A new approach to school absenteeism

Heather Ballien

A recent report from Johns Hopkins University and Attendance Works found that more than half of Detroit’s students are chronically absent, meaning they miss at least 15 days of school throughout the year.

The same report had Michigan ranked third in the country for having the most school districts with chronic absence rates at or above 30 percent and outlined how kids who are chronically absent do less well in school and are less likely to graduate from high school.

Chronic absenteeism can be curbed if we can better understand the schooling options and methods available that may best meet our learners and their families’ distinct needs. It is essential that we go beyond the walls of traditional classrooms, and discuss realistic solutions to help children achieve educational success.

Virtual education can be a realistic option for many families who face barriers and those who, for a variety of reasons, seek a different schooling method. It’s an option that, nationwide, has increased in enrollment by 80 percent in the past five years, with over 2.7 million students taking part in online or blended learning according to the annual Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning report.

Online learning flexibility in terms of scheduling, which allows students to complete schoolwork from anywhere there is an internet connection, and at a time of day when it is convenient for them. This means students never have to miss a day of school due to unreliable transportation, weather conditions or other unforeseeable circumstances. Online learning also allows the flexibility for students to learn at their own pace, as well as to be involved in extracurricular activities — such as pursuing a career in sports or entertainment — that may not have been possible in traditional school. Finally, it allows parents who wish to remain more engaged with their children’s education to do so by serving as learning coach with frequent contact with teachers and staff.

Virtual schooling can be a solution for many students struggling with absenteeism, whether due to Michigan winters, economic challenges or unique family situations. It’s time that we, as a community, stepped outside of the box to consider this and other education solutions that are available to best serve each family and their learners.

Heather Ballien is the principal at Great Lakes Cyber Academy, an online school serving students in grades 6-12 statewide.