Early absenteeism in school can point to later problems in life

Back to School/Missing Class: The first of three parts


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It's just kindergarten.

Maybe you had that thought when your 5-year-old woke up with a tummy ache or when you wanted to take your youngster on a trip for a few days or when your child missed the school bus.

What's the harm in missing a day -- or two or three -- of school?

Consider this:

Children who miss a significant number of days in kindergarten often continue to miss a significant number of days in first grade.

By third grade, fewer than 1 in 5 of those significantly absent in kindergarten and first grade are at grade level in reading.

By fourth grade, when reading is required to learn just about everything, many never catch up. They may disengage from learning, have behavior problems and later drop out.

About this series

As the school year starts, attention is on school attendance. Here's a quick glance at what this series will be covering:

Today: Absenteeism

Monday: Truancy

Tuesday: Suspensions

"These missed days are so important," said Ken Smythe-Lestico, assistant director of the Child Development Office at the University of Pittsburgh, who provided the national odds of success for children who miss school.

The importance of attendance doesn't end with the elementary grades.

By ninth grade, attendance is a better predictor of high school graduation than eighth-grade test scores, according to Attendance Works, a national organization that promotes attendance.

Attendance problems can be found in all racial, income and education backgrounds, but are more prevalent in high-poverty urban and rural communities, Mr. Smythe-Lestico said.

The Moon Area School District attendance policy puts the importance of attendance simply, underlined and in bold print: "Absent students cannot be taught."

School districts are used to looking at attendance as how many students are present on an average day or how many unexcused days students miss.

Now there is a trend toward looking at how many days each student misses in total for any reason and trying to find ways to reduce the number.

It's 'Attendance Awareness Month'

In the forefront is Attendance Works, which urges schools to track "chronic absenteeism" -- which it defines as 10 percent or more of a school year for any reason, legitimate or not.

Attendance Works and about 40 national organizations and other partners last week launched a national campaign, declaring September Attendance Awareness Month.

PG chart: Chronic absenteeism
(Click image for larger version)

"Just two or three days a month -- and they don't have to be consecutive days; they can be sporadic -- will add up to 18 days, almost a month of school loss. And research shows kids start to fall behind then," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works.

In Pennsylvania where the required school year is 180 days, chronic absenteeism means missing 18 days or more.

A federal proposal would require all schools to collect data on students missing 15 or more school days as early as this school year. They would submit it to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

"Chronic absenteeism can be a sign of serious school climate issues that are driving children out of school," said Cameron French, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, in an email.

"It can also be a warning sign of serious problems that children may experience in the future, e.g., dropping out," he said.

The National School Boards Association, calling some proposed additional reporting requirements "burdensome," said in a news release the absenteeism data "may be valuable for other purposes but does not pertain to civil rights issues in the areas monitored."

A handful of states already require schools to keep at least some data on chronic absenteeism although the definitions vary slightly. Pennsylvania has no such plans, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

"Student attendance is the responsibility of the students' local education agency," he said. Some school districts, such as Pittsburgh Public Schools, voluntarily track chronic absenteeism. Principals can easily find out online each day who has missed 10 percent or more of school days in the most recent 20 school days, the prior 20 school days, the year to date and in the prior year.

Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane said chronic absenteeism "totally got my attention and particularly because of all the work we're doing with effective teaching. That goes for nought if the kids aren't there."

There are many reasons students don't come to school, many of them valid. They range from illnesses and deaths in the family to homelessness -- which includes doubling up with another family -- and a lack of transportation or safe routes to school.

Reasons for absenteeism

Ms. Chang divides the reasons for missing school into three groups: myths, aversion and barriers.

Myths, she said, can be overcome by making parents aware of the importance of school attendance at all grade levels.

She said aversion can be the result of poor teaching, teacher turnover, bullying or even physical conditions in the classroom, such as mold.

Tackling barriers can take a community effort.

"You have to be sensitive that some families get that school matters, but they face serious barriers. They may face health issues, asthma, diabetes, a lack of access to medical care," Ms. Chang said.

In a pilot program at Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood in which parents were contacted this past school year when a kindergartner was absent to find out why, Mr. Smythe-Lestico said barriers included transportation and transience.

As children moved, it could take as long as five days to get a new school bus route, he said.

Mr. Smythe-Lestico also learned that when there are half days, early releases or snow delays, "Kids would miss a large number of days related to that. They just wouldn't go."

School districts face the challenge of trying to remove at least some of the obstacles.

Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services have joined forces to help students get the social supports they need.

In a Focus on Attendance program started last year, a county school outreach specialist worked with school counselors at Pittsburgh King PreK-8 and Manchester PreK-8 to help 147 children.

Such help resulted in nearly half of the students having improved attendance and nearly half improved academic achievement.

Helping early worked best. More than two-thirds of those referred early in the year improved their attendance while only 18 percent of those referred in the spring did so.

The community has joined in efforts to boost attendance as well.

The United Way and its partners -- including Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit -- recently launched a "Be There" campaign.

This follows a "Hi 5! Kindergarten Here I Come" spring campaign by the United Way and other partners aimed at encouraging kindergarten registration.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, Ready Freddy -- started by Pitt's Office of Child Development with support from the Heinz Endowments in 2006 -- boosts enthusiasm for kindergarten registration and attendance using a theme built around a frog mascot.

The program is in seven schools -- the newest this fall is Pittsburgh Spring Hill K-5 -- and will be expanding in various ways to 30 with help from the Hillman Foundation.

It doesn't always take a sophisticated system to monitor attendance. Clairton School District, with just under 800 students, uses charts on the wall to keep track of who misses too many days of school.

Clairton students are reminded of attendance. Frequent posters answer the question of "why attendance matters" with the prospects of getting better grades, finding a better job, staying out of trouble and graduating.

For Pittsburgh, the difference attendance makes is not theoretical.

Data from its own students show those who attend more regularly are more likely to graduate on time, continue to college and persist in college.

If students attend 95 percent or more of the time in ninth grade, the chance of graduating on time in the district's schools is 90 percent. If they attend 80 percent or less, it's 25 percent.

Many schools have impressive percentages for their average daily attendance.

Countywide, average daily attendance rates ranged from 89 percent to 96 percent in 2011-12. The countywide and statewide averages are both about 94 percent.

But Ms. Chang said that even in schools with 95 percent average attendance rates, high attenders can mask the problem of a group of students missing a large number of days.

Running the numbers

South Allegheny School District had a nearly 98 percent average daily attendance rate in 2012-13, but showed a districtwide chronic absentee rate of 12.7 percent in 2012-13.

South Allegheny's highest figures were at the two ends of the spectrum: 16.5 percent in kindergarten and 24 percent in 12th grade.

The Post-Gazette asked all 43 school districts in Allegheny County for figures for the percentage of students who missed 18 days or more in 2012-13 for any reason. Thirty-five districts responded, with an unweighted average rate of 12.3 percent.

Many absences are unexcused, such as in Woodland Hills where more than a third of the students who were chronically absent could make that category on unexcused absences alone.

In February, Pittsburgh Public Schools released data on chronic absenteeism for 2011-12 which painted a far less rosy picture than its average attendance rate of 91 percent did.

Chronic absenteeism averaged 47 percent in high schools, 30 percent in 6-12 schools, 26 percent in 6-8 schools and 18 percent in K-8 and K-5 schools.

It was as high as 60 percent in Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side and as low as 5 percent at Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5 in East Liberty.

Though some suburban districts don't appear to be regularly tracking chronic absenteeism specifically at the 10 percent level, they still have policies with a cutoff for days missed before losing privileges, such as driving to school, participating in activities and even passing classes.

One significant predictor of future success is the very first day of kindergarten.

In studies of two Pittsburgh schools, Mr. Smythe-Lestico said, "We found if we got them there on the first day, they missed half as many days as kids who missed the first day."

For children who attend kindergarten less than 80 percent of the time, only 45 percent are proficient in reading and 46 percent in math in grade 3 in Pittsburgh.

That's about 20 to 30 percentage points below the achievement of those who attended kindergarten at least 90 percent of the time.

Yet despite its importance, Ms. Chang said, "We typically see the highest levels of chronic absence in kindergarten."

A key fact about kindergarten

In Pennsylvania, kindergarten attendance is not mandatory. Compulsory attendance kicks in at age 8 or the start of first grade, whichever comes first. A case before the state Supreme Court focuses on whether a Snyder County parent violated the compulsory attendance law when her twins missed kindergarten.

Nevertheless, across Allegheny County, 724 kindergarten students were reported as habitually truant -- absent six or more days unexcused or unlawful -- in 2011-12, according to the state Safe Schools report.

In the Wilkinsburg School District, 54 of the 107 kindergartners were identified as truant in 2011-12.

"Those children that were habitually truant in kindergarten are still the kids you are trying to get to come to school by second or third grade," truancy officer Velma Parker said.

At the first day of kindergarten at Spring Hill on Thursday, kindergartners and their parents walked through a balloon archway to give a high 5, hug or just a hesitant look to the Ready Freddy mascot.

Smiles, a few tears from parents and anticipation were evident as school staff and United Way volunteers welcomed the newcomers.

Jessica Platek of Spring Hill arrived with her son, Gavin, a kindergartner, her third child at the school.

She said her children have rarely missed and are "doing great" because "they're here and they're here on time."

Principal Todd Van Horn said the school's kindergartners usually are good about showing up the first day -- 51 of 54 attended -- but the problem is consistency after that.

Mr. Smythe-Lestico said the mascot, various attendance incentives, following up on absences and developing safe walks to school are among strategies that will be used this year at Spring Hill.

The same 51 made it the second day.

In a school where kindergarten attendance can drop to near 50 percent in bad weather, Mr. Van Horn said, "If we can keep 95 percent through the whole year, I'll be the happiest man on the North Side."

education

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published September 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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