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 is close to that national norm.
Analysis found that higher rates of chronic absenteeism are concentrated in just over 650 districts, about 4 percent of them. In that group are local districts including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Osseo, South Washington County, Stillwater and Robbinsdale. 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 much 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, local districts report a variety of causes. Physical and mental health (student and family), poverty-related challenges, suspensions, homelessness and bullying are among the factors, and they require multiple responses. Districts need more counselors, social workers and other staff members to develop individual approaches 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, county attorneys in the metro area are working with districts to intervene with students before and after they become legally truant.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued previously, keeping kids engaged in learning is not solely a school issue; families and communities must be part of the answer. If children are hanging out near businesses during school hours, adults should question them. Neighbors need to notice when children are home too often. Schools and families must use the online portals that can keep track of student attendance in school and in class daily to stay informed about kids’ whereabouts.
Adults must surround kids with this message: Go to school and be engaged each and every day.