It’s been said democracy belongs to those who show up. The same holds for education — if you regularly miss class, it’s harder to learn. That’s why discouraging data on chronic absenteeism in American schools demand action.
Earlier this summer, the federal Education Department reported that just over 6.5 million students, about 13 percent of all kids, were absent for at least 15 days during the 2013-14 school year. Minnesota’s chronic absenteeism rate at 12.6 percent (over 100,000 students) is near the national norm.
Analysis found that higher rates of chronic absenteeism are concentrated in just over 650 districts, or 4 percent of them, nationwide. The local districts in that group include Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Osseo, South Washington County, Stillwater and Robbinsdale — with absent rates ranging from 6 to nearly 25 percent. Outside the metro area, the St. Cloud, Rochester and Bemidji districts made the list.
The Attendance Works and Everyone Graduates national initiatives conducted the reviews of data from the federal Office for Civil Rights. Students chronically absent often understandably fall behind academically. And nonattendance has a more negative impact on poor students whose families can’t help them make up lost ground.
As to why so many kids aren’t showing up, national research and local districts report a variety of causes. Physical and mental health (student and family), poverty-related challenges, suspensions, homelessness and fear of bullying are among the reasons kids skip school. When schools find out why students are absent, it’s clear that multiple responses and individual plans are required. Districts need more counselors, social workers and other staff members to get absent kids back on track.
To their credit, many metro-area districts are working on keeping kids in class. Last week, St. Paul kicked off its School Attendance Matters (SAM) program, which includes working with the Ramsey County attorney’s office and the community. Minneapolis has a long-standing Check and Connect effort that uses some staff members and AmeriCorps interns to work with families when kids miss school. And Minneapolis is one of about 30 urban districts that is addressing attendance issues with the help of a national White House effort to reduce school absences.
In addition, metro-area county attorneys collaborate with districts to intervene with students before and after they become legally truant.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued before, keeping kids connected to learning is not solely a school problem; families, communities and any adults who touch children’s lives should also be part of the solution. If children are hanging out near businesses during school hours, adults should ask them why they aren’t in school. Neighbors need to notice when children are home too often. Schools and families should use online portals to keep on top of student attendance.
Caring adults must surround kids with this message: School attendance matters. Showing up in class and being engaged in learning every day are keys to future success.