Present & Accounted For

School Attendance is a Predictor of Future Success

For teacher and students alike, being part of the learning experience where thoughts are shared, assumptions are challenged and new ideas are explored can be truly magical. Unfortunately, too many students miss out on the joy of learning because they are absent from school.

The research is clear that regular attendance is critical for academic achievement. It may seem a ridiculously obvious concept, but as we celebrate the nation’s second annual Attendance Awareness Month this September, regular school attendance is an issue that needs to be addressed.

 

How bad is the problem? Approximately six million American elementary and high school students miss nearly a month of school each year.

Chronically absent students not only fall behind academically but also can become frustrated and disruptive as a defense mechanism for not understanding what’s going on in class.

While absenteeism hurts all kids, students in poorer communities suffer disproportionately. The numbers are staggering. Children in poor communities who miss more than five school days a year see their chance of graduating high school drop dramatically. First grade students with nine or more absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their non-absent peers. And students with more than 20 absences in a year have a less than one-in-five chance of passing twelfth grade.

Additionally, chronically absent elementary students have a much harder time learning to read and their absenteeism negatively affects other students, because the teacher needs to spend large periods of time backtracking to help them catch up.

While California's school districts have traditionally used law enforcement to deal with the parents and guardians of chronically absent students, this approach punishes rather than assists families for problems often rooted in poverty and lack of resources.

The majority of chronic absenteeism cases are due to mental health issues such as depression and drug addiction, whether in the students themselves or their family members. Other issues can also play a role in missing school such as middle school students caring for younger siblings, high school age students unable to get up in the morning because they work an evening shift to help support their family or disruptive kids told not to come back to school following a disciplinary incident.

But there are things we can do to help keep kids in school. Parents need to be brought into the effort to prevent absenteeism. School districts need to work with other governmental agencies to attack some of the underlying causes of absenteeism. Social workers can meet with families and explore alternative childcare options for younger siblings.

The state and local districts can fund nursing and mental health positions at every school so that trained professionals can communicate and assist students and their parents. And districts can strengthen their partnerships with agencies handling issues of substance abuse, violence and general mental health so that chronically absent students have easy, free access to these resources directly from school.

The California Federation of Teachers believes in the idea of “Healthy Kids, Healthy Minds,” a holistic approach to education that includes wrap around social services for schools. We cannot divorce issues of mental and physical health from a child's achievement and attendance in school. Children don’t choose their circumstances, but we can take steps to improve conditions that make it easier for kids to attend school and be successful.

The good news is that California has better overall attendance statistics than the majority of states, and our education leadership is proactive. But more work needs to be done and we need to remain vigilant and committed to providing the resources to help all students succeed. Only then can the magic of learning ignite the potential that is in every child.