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Be There: Absence is a Dead End


Turns out, comedian and director Woody Allen was pretty much right when he said 80 percent of success is showing up. In school, as in life, absence is a dead end.

Kent ISD and its member superintendents in 2016 adopted a common definition of truancy as 10 unexcused absences, and chronic absenteeism as missing more than 10 percent of scheduled school time. For an entire school year, that would be 18 days or more absent, whether excused or unexcused. This has been in effect since the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

While truancy is well known and understood, chronic absenteeism is less familiar, as most absences are excused by parents and, until recently, were rarely challenged by educators. That began to change approximately a decade ago through the work of education researcher Hedy Chang, who is now the executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit seeking to help schools and communities combat chronic absenteeism.

Chang’s research led to the publication in 2008 of “Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades.” This report found chronically absent students — those who miss 10 percent or more of school — do worse academically. It also revealed that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students nationwide miss nearly a month of school each year. In some cities, the rate is as high as one in four elementary students.

Across Kent ISD, approximately 13 percent of students are chronically absent. Like the national studies, the prevalence of chronic absenteeism varies widely from school building to building and district to district but, in virtually every instance, it is greater in buildings and communities serving the economically disadvantaged.

The effects of chronic absenteeism are profound. Kent ISD researcher Sunil Joy found these students are much less likely to become proficient in math or reading. Just one in four are likely to be proficient in math at eighth grade. Worse, low-income students who are chronically absent have just a 10 percent chance of being proficient. Even more startling is the effect on African-American students, with just 3 percent likely to be proficient if they are chronically absent.

Although proficiency levels are somewhat higher for early literacy among chronically absent children, the numbers are just as stark — and the consequences may be more damaging. Just 40 percent of children with this level of absenteeism in their kindergarten through second-grade experience can be expected to show proficiency on third-grade reading tests. Those numbers fall to just 20 percent for low-income students and 10 percent for African Americans. The probable proficiency rate for Hispanic students is slightly above the African-American rate but below the overall low-income proficiency levels for chronically absent students.

Our districts are working hard to get at this problem. The nearly 50 school buildings within the Kent School Services Network have a laser focus on addressing the barriers to attendance for students. The social workers and clinicians of KSSN work to identify and attack domestic issues ranging from mental health to inadequate clothing. This work has been underway for a decade and is cited as a national example by the Attendance Works organization as a success story. So, too, is the “Strive for Less than 5” attendance campaign created by the Grand Rapids Public Schools, which is now being studied for implementation across all 20 districts in Kent ISD.

The value of the Strive For Less Than 5 campaign is its uniform message to all children, families and community partners. Attendance is important, and parents and their children should strive for fewer than five absences a year.

So, with a nod to Woody, let’s all make an effort to Be There. Be in attendance. Showing up is a big part of life, and success. But let’s make it 90 percent instead of 80.

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education. Read Ron's full bio

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