Students who miss a lot school fall behind. It seems logical, but it’s still a national problem.
Each year, between 5 and 7.5 million U.S. children are considered chronically absent. In Ohio, 15.8 percent of students miss 10 percent of the school year—about 18 days. That adds up to nearly four weeks of school missed.
“It often is students who miss days here and there… And those days add up and there are big consequences for those students who are missing that much instruction,” says Chris Woolard, Senior Executive Director for Accountability and Continuous Improvement for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).
The consequences are clear: lower test scores and higher dropout rates in the long run.
“What we discovered in Cleveland is that when a student is absent for 10 days for any reason, they score 12 points lower on standard reading test, 15 points lower on standard math tests, and with every increment of 10 days absent for any reason, our scholars are 34 percent less likely to graduate on time,” says Lorri Hobson, the Director of Attendance for Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD).
ODE has a goal to bring chronic absentee rates down to 5 percent or less. State officials expect each district to come up with their own plan to reach that goal. Many districts across the state are already working toward that end.
Find Out Why
Intervention is the approach in Cleveland for all absences. The district wants to improve a 29 percent chronic absenteeism rate.
In Cleveland, the school district has a stricter definition for chronic absenteeism than the state: 10 days in a school year. CMSD contacts parents after only 2 absences.
“It’s a warm, friendly conversation where we reach out to parents to learn what difficulties they may be facing,” says Hobson.
Transportation can be a challenge. According to Hobson, a solution can be as simple as introducing people to their neighbors. Is there another parent in the community who can help bring their kid’s classmate to school?
“It’s things that many of our families who have support networks take for granted,” says Hobson.
ODE officials want districts to do just that.
“At a local level, you want to understand why students are absent and that can vary,” says Woolard.
Hobson’s office at CMSD oversees that the district is doing just that and connecting families to the appropriate services.
What Do Families Need?
“Economically disadvantaged students are much more likely to be chronically absent than other students,” says Woolard.
ODE reports the statewide chronic absenteeism rate for that demographic at 23.7 percent.
There are many reasons poor kids miss school: changes in parents’ shift-work, homelessness, or kids not having some of the basics, such as clothing.
“Maybe dad lost a job and they’re facing eviction. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy [of Needs] theory, a sense of safety and well-being supersedes education,” says Hobson.
Francie Watson, Principal of Westropp Elementary School, sees this first hand. Many of her students live in poverty and many of her pre-K through 8th graders are homeless (CMSD has 2646 homeless students).
“It’s not necessarily that the student doesn’t want to come,” she says. “But if I don’t have clean clothes, if I’m an older sibling and I have to watch the younger sibling… then there I am, I’m now missing school.”
Creative Solutions: Wardrobe
Principal Watson’s school has an attendance committee that helps address some of those needs. Sometimes she picks kids up for school.
After academics, the Westropp Elementary School principal has another thing on her mind: laundry.
“Children will be teased if they smell. If you’re wearing dirty clothes, the kids know. And that’s going to break their self-esteem which will interfere with their ability to achieve,” says Watson.
The focus isn’t fashion, but making sure kids have what they need to make it to school and pay attention.
“What we’ve trying to do is give incentives to parents, give incentives to kids. We wash kids’ clothes,” says Watson, whose school has laundry facilities on the premises.
The uniforms they’re washing at Westropp come from the non-profit Shoes and Clothes for Kids Inc. Since the beginning of the year, with funding from the Cleveland Browns’ Foundation, the charitable organization has donated more than 350 packs of clothes to kids at the school.
“If you don’t have boots, by the time you get to school your shoes are soaking wet, your socks are soaking wet, which means you’re going to be cold all day. And so, for some kids it’s probably easier and safer to stay home,” says Board Chair Tracey Jemisen. He hopes to expand the program to provide seasonal wardrobes to help ensure kids get to school.
“We understand that we’re only one of the many reasons that kids may not be able to get to school, but if we can help eliminate that barrier, then hopefully there are some other agencies that help eliminate some of the other issues that may be impacting kids getting to school,” says Jemisen.
Addressing Health Needs
Woolard from ODE recommends that districts use partnerships like the one between CMSD and Shoes and Clothes for Kids Inc.
For example, he highlights what’s being done at the Oyler School in Cincinnati, where kids can get services they need at school. Oyler students have access to vision and dental appointments without having to miss a full day of education.
At CMSD, Hobson says the district sees a lot of absences related to asthma. ODE officials say it’s an issue in other districts, too.
In Cleveland, children can have an asthma plan. Parents can be alerted of attacks, but instead of missing a whole day, a nurse can administer a child’s breathing treatment at school.
For Hobson, it’s about creating a sense of community at the school—a place where parents know their kids are safe and well taken care of.
“When school is a place where kids want to be, they go to school,” says Hobson.
A Changing Approach to Dealing with Skippers
Chronic absenteeism refers to kids who miss school for any reason, and while truancy refers to students missing school without an excuse. Excused or not, missing school hurts students academically.
The Ohio legislature recently passed Ohio House Bill 410, which decriminalizes truancy. The law, which goes into effect in April, requires schools to find out why kids are missing school and to look for ways to intervene.
“We want them there,” says Woolard.
Woolard says suspending kids for missing school is counterproductive.
Hobson says there has been a cultural shift in the educational community when it comes to how schools address students missing school. When truancy laws were first written, the approach was more castigatory.
“I think that was the tone, but since that time we’ve grown and we’ve learned a great deal,” says Hobson.
When kids are not at school, “They’re going to miss integral skills that they’re going to need to be successful in literacy, in math, in social studies and science, which are all tested. And especially with the third grade guarantee, those students will not be allowed to go to fourth grade,” says Principal Watson.
That’s why as part of Ohio’s plan to improve education under the Every Student Succeeds Act, ODE wants schools to measure and improve their rates of chronic absenteeism.
The Ohio ESSA plan calls for the rate to reach 5 percent or better by the 2025-2026 school year. Districts like Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton (with chronic absentee rates at 30.7 percent, 38.1 percent, and 26.8 percent, respectively) have big numbers to bring down.
Woolard recognizes the size of that task.
“We want to make sure that they’re showing improvement. So, we’ve proposed that you can meet the indicator by reducing that by 3 points.”
Ultimately, he advises districts to start by identifying some of the specific reasons their kids miss school.
“When you have a better sense of what the needs are, then you can start to put strategies in place to address them,” he says.