Jacques: Back to school 101: Show up to class

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

School officially starts today in Michigan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean children will be at their desks this week — or in weeks to come. This is especially true in Detroit, where heading to school is too often more of a whim than a daily ritual.

Past studies have shown how stark the numbers are for Michigan’s largest school district. An in-depth report last year looked at data from the 2013-14 school year, and found nearly 60 percent of students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District were chronically absent — meaning they missed at least 15 days a school year. Many miss more days than that.

That places Detroit with one of the worst records in the country for school attendance.

As the district, now under new leadership, seeks a fresh start and a renewed image, getting kids in school every day must be a top goal. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti knows that, and he’s put together a team that will also place a priority on being in school.

Students in the Detroit district do face significant challenges. Nationwide, it’s high-minority districts where large percentages of families live in poverty that face the highest rates of absent students. And Detroit’s numbers outpace other urban districts like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Cleveland. It’s 98 percent minority and 51 percent of students live in poverty.

“Concentrated chronic absenteeism both reflects and exacerbates the problems these communities face,” states the report from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center.

Poverty may be the reality, but it shouldn’t be an excuse. To break the cycle of poverty, students need an education.

Sadly, the highest percentage of absenteeism (59 percent) was with Detroit elementary students. That means it’s parents who are to blame for not getting kids to school.

Districts in these areas have to work that much harder to help students get to class. Transportation is often a hardship.

The report did highlight positive attendance gains by Grand Rapids Public Schools, where administrators tackled a high rate of chronic absenteeism (36 percent missed nearly a month of school a year). Through community engagement and family support, the district cut the numbers by 25 percent in three years.

What worked there could work in Detroit, too.

Parents in Detroit don’t have a lot of faith right now in DPSCD, given its poor track record of educating students. But even the best teachers and principals can’t make up for students who aren’t there.

The district must deliver better results, but parents and students who choose the district need to uphold their end of the bargain.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques