From an outsider’s point of view, missing school is not a big issue. The daily attendance rate for grades K–5 in New York City public schools ranged between 92 and 95 percent last year. But that statistic masks a much larger problem for a big subset of students.
A 2014 report by the Center for NYC Affairs found more than 87,000, or 19 percent, of elementary school students in New York City were absent 18 days or more, which translates to at least 10 percent of the school year.
Such “chronic absence” doesn’t show up in a school’s daily attendance statistics because it is the same few students over and over again. A just-published national study by Attendance Works pinpointed six schools in New York City with 90 percent overall attendance that nevertheless had 20 to 26 percent of students absent 18 to 35 times a year or more.
Hidden consequences and causes
The consequences of chronic absenteeism are a high risk of school failure. The Attendance Works study showed that when a child misses 10 percent of school, his or her test scores drop substantially [see chart].
“Chronic absence is a proven early warning sign that a student is behind in reading by 3rd grade, failing courses in middle and high school, and likely to drop out,” according to Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the director of Attendance Works.
Attendance Works reviewed several studies to uncover the causes of chronic absence. Truancy, or skipping school to hang out, is not the main problem, the group found. Instead, most of the absences were “excused absences,” such as doctor visits, transportation problems or family issues.
Parental misunderstanding is one key cause. According to a survey by Todd Rogers of Harvard University, many parents mistakenly believe missing school in the early grades is fine and students will catch up; absence is not a problem if a parent signs off; and only consecutive absences matter.
Addressing the problem
The focus of the UFT NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative this year is to understand and mitigate chronic absenteeism. It brought in Attendance Works to train its staff as the school year opened.
Schools can use attendance data to begin to grapple with the problem. Data for Brooklyn’s PS 335 in Crown Heights, charted in the Center for NYC Affairs report, shows a month of attendance for 45 unnamed students. Looking at the graph immediately identifies the handful of students with serious absences; certain days when attendance is low; and other patterns of absence.
Armed with the data, PS 335, which is now a UFT Community Learning School, started to address attendance using a three-tier approach (with Tier 3 having the most absences) advocated by Attendance Works.
“For our Tier 1, the largest group, we have special art projects. Academic after-school with basketball, which they love, is open to everyone,” said Charlene Corbett, the PS 335 community school director. “Students and their parents will be receiving consistent messaging about the importance of attending every day.”
Tier 2 students get individualized plans. “If something is going on at home, a staffer might reach out to the family,” says Corbett.
Tier 3 students may be personally invited to a special club, such as the debate club on Fridays, and encouraged with regular academic assistance.
Since parental misunderstanding, especially in the early grades, underlies poor attendance, it makes sense to arm families with facts, experts say. Telling them that 83 percent of children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and 1st grade are unable to read on grade level by 3rd grade is a powerful motivator, Attendance Works suggests.
Teaching staff cannot be alone in addressing the problem. School-based medical and mental-health clinics help keep children coming to school. A school clinic in Baltimore that addressed asthma and immunizations cut chronic absence from 17 percent to 11 percent. Nurses and family advocates at the clinic looked over community data on immunizations and offered the shots at school to identified families. They also provided home visits to check for asthma triggers. In addition, resources at school to help families with housing and transportation let teachers focus on instruction.
“As a Community Learning School, this is the crux of what our advisory board does,” said Chiniza Batiste, the community school director at PS 188 in Brooklyn. “At the table we have our school-based support team, representatives of staff, teachers and community-based organizations. The idea is that it’s the whole school, a conscious collaborative effort, where even the lunch staff and the custodial staff are involved under the attendance umbrella.”
Teachers cannot teach children who don’t show up. And chronically absent children slow down not just their own progress but the progress of the whole class. The good news is early intervention works. Research shows that catching and addressing attendance problems right away puts the child back on track and significantly reduces absenteeism going forward.