Chronic School Absence In Arizona Among Highest In U.S.
LAUREN GILGER: More than 8 million kids in K-12 schools were chronically absent during the 2015-2016 school year. That's about 15 percent of students — and here in Arizona those numbers are even higher. Those are some of the findings from a first of its kind report from nonprofit Attendance Works. They used the latest federal data from the U.S. Department of Education and compared the differences in school chronic absent levels and demographics and what they found raises some concerns about our country's ability to provide all students with a quality education — according to Hedy Chang executive director of Attendance Works. I spoke with her more about the report via Skype.
HEDY CHANG: A child is chronically absent when they've missed so much school for any reason that they're academically at risk. That's including excused absences unexcused absences and even suspensions. It's sort of based on the premise that if you miss out on what's being taught in the classroom it's awfully hard for you to benefit from the instruction that's being offered. Typically we recommend defining chronic absence as missing 10 percent of the school year and we suggest a 10 percent because if you use a percentage you can use it as an early warning system. Just two days in the first month of school, four days by the second month of school, six days by the third month of school. And that allows you to notice when kids are chronically absent so you can take steps to prevent them from missing too much school and actually stop chronic absence in its tracks before you've completed the school year.
GILGER: I know you break this down state by state and look at some states that ended up faring worse than others in this realm. How does Arizona look compared to the rest of the country?
CHANG: What we did in this report was we were not just looking at the percent of children chronically absent, but we were also looking at how much schools were affected. And Arizona looks like it's about 18.7 percent of kids — that's 212,000 ... of your over 1.135 million kids — are chronically absent. But what you're seeing is at a fairly high percentage of your schools have what we call high or extreme chronic absence. So 45 percent of all the schools in Arizona, in the school year '15-'16, had at least 20 percent or more of their kids chronically absent. It is among the highest in the country. And why we think it's important to look at levels of chronic absence is that when you have higher extreme levels, extreme is 30 percent or more of your schools chronically absent, it means that it's not just the education of the child who's chronically absent that's being affected but the turn is actually affecting the ability of the entire classroom to move forward. Because a teacher is trying to figure out, you know Johnny came in yesterday but Mary missed that day. Do I repeat the lesson or do I move forward?
GILGER: I want to talk more about the results of this in a moment. But I understand that this also breaks down quite differently by student demographics. Can you outline that for us?
CHANG: So, first of all, it follows the contours of poverty. Poverty is one of the strongest predictors. Poverty affects both the levels of chronic absence and the impact of chronic absence. So if you are living in higher poverty situations where you have less stable housing, you have unreliable transportation, you have real challenges with lack of access to healthcare as well as possibly the presence of chronic illness — and those are all poverty related challenges — you are much more likely to have chronic absence not only one year but multiple years. And you are also less likely to have the resources to make up for the lost time in the classroom. So the impact is even greater.
GILGER: What are states doing to sort of one monitor chronic absenteeism, what are schools able to do, and then what happens on a broader level in terms of education policy to try to break this?
CHANG: Well, the important thing first is to know that you have a chronic absence challenge in the first place and then to take a much more prevention positive solving approach than we ever did before. In the past we only monitored truancy which is just unexcused absences and we tended to both wait till absences, unexcused absences, added up to do anything and if we did anything it was more of a threat of court action. Which for families and communities that already sort of distrust schools and communities, it actually doesn't change what's going on. What you want to do is take chronic absence. Notice, for example, if a child was chronically absent in the prior year there's a good chance are going to be chronically absent in the next year unless you put in place prevention and intervention. And so what you can do, as a state is you can make sure everyone knows there are levels of chronic absence data — know which kids — and then help people think about what are great engaging, what I would call tier-two personalized interventions that can help make sure kids come back to school. Whether that's having a mentor who greets a child every day and connect with them when they're gone, and then find out what are the challenges that they're facing so that you can connect them to the right community research — that's called a success mentor and has been proven to reduce chronic absence. Sometimes when you reach out to the kids you realize, for example, that one of the challenges is of walking to school safely and you can actually create walking school buses. But what you're doing is you're taking data, you're finding out how much of a problem do we have, and what do we know about the causes and challenges facing kids. And what do we know about the assets in our community to actually turn around chronic absence. And then how do we start the year with a plan for positive engagement, and problem solving and prevention versus waiting for kids to start missing school and then falling behind. And then finally we take action, and maybe if we take action we're just sending threatening letters. Which doesn’t change what really happens to kids, and doesn’t make sure that they’re in school so they can learn and thrive.
GILGER: Hedy Chang is the executive director of Attendance Works. Hedy, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this today.
CHANG: My pleasure.