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Communities should work together to keep kids in class

By Robert Balfanz

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Nov. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Nationwide, 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent each year. All too often, no one notices or even cares if these kids don’t show up.

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Nationwide, 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent each year. All too often, no one notices or even cares if these kids don’t show up.

Our research at Johns Hopkins University shows that chronic absence is a strong predictor of who will eventually drop out of school. And the problem starts early. One study estimated that one in 10 of the nation’s kindergarten and first-grade students was chronically absent.

These early absences can leave children lagging in basic reading and math skills and can establish an entrenched pattern of chronic absenteeism as students move into middle and high school. Chronically absent students also are more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system.

The good news is that mayors, school districts and communities have a relatively low-cost way to raise academic achievement, increase graduation rates, reduce juvenile justice costs and build better pathways out of poverty: that is, to work together to get their students to attend school every day.

Schools that have succeeded in increasing attendance engage their communities and school leaders. For example, a successful three-year campaign in New York City, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, engaged the village of schools, city agencies, public-private partnerships and community partners. The Seattle Diplomas Now program uses weekly early warning indicator meetings to design whole-school prevention efforts and target chronically absent students with tailored support from teachers, City Year AmeriCorps members and a wide range of social services organized by Communities In Schools.

Communities can work together in many ways. First, principals and teachers should constantly look at their attendance data to determine who is not coming to school and why. Are some kids staying home because they’re afraid to walk on a particular route? Transit and police departments can be tapped to devise safer routes. Schools could enlist assistance from health care providers and city agencies if health problems are keeping kids home.

Volunteers from local companies, faith-based groups and nonprofits can mentor absent students. In New York, previously chronically absent students who had “success mentors” gained almost two additional weeks of school per student, per year. Previously chronically absent high school students who had success mentors were 52 percent more likely to remain in school the following year than were peers without mentors. Local businesses also could donate gift cards or other incentives to recognize students and families.

The Attendance Works website, a national initiative to reduce chronic absence, also contains free tools for parents, health care providers, aftercare providers, city leaders and school districts. The New York City task force’s website also offers many resources.

We can boost attendance when schools and communities make this a shared priority. They can turn things around by analyzing data, building a culture that celebrates coming to class, and helping families send their children to school. We’ve seen this work time after time.

Robert Balfanz is a senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, where he is co-director of Talent Development Secondary and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center. He wrote this for The Seattle Times.

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