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Working to reduce chronic absenteeism

In a windowless multipurpose room on the third floor of the Kent County Courthouse building, 15 people from a variety of government entities, social service agencies, school districts and more gathered around a square of conference tables to talk about how to keep kids in school.

Someone passing by the open door and overhearing snippets of the conversation would have gained an appreciation for the breadth and depth of the 90-minute meeting, chaired by Kent County Judge Kathleen Feeney.

  • “You’d have to educate whoever is volunteering to make sure they know what the law is …”
  • “I’m trying like crazy to contact the governor’s office … and we’re stuck in the middle of a giant battle of chicken.”
  • “Maybe PTA meetings, giving them the information that we received about school and attendance …”
  • “Places that they can reach out to get support and to get help.”
  • “Great, thank you guys always moving forward.”
  • “There’s some grant dollars at least for a year …”
  • “We need to stop having kids not going to school.”

The group gathered around the tables is the Kent County School-Justice Partnership, and their mandate since inception in 2013 has essentially been that last sentence above.

They meet almost monthly and attendance ranges from 15-20 people, representing a wide range of organizations: the Family Division of the 17th Circuit Court, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Kent County Prosecutor’s office, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent School Services Network, Kent ISD, Network 180, Godfrey-Lee Schools, the Dispute Resolution Center, West Michigan Partnership for Children, Lighthouse Academy, Project Northstar, Parents Empowering Network and others.

Kent County Judge Kathleen Feeney heads up the Kent County School-Justice Partnership

Judge Feeney: A Group Constant

One constant is Feeney, who has been with the group since the beginning.

She says the many stakeholders who comprise the Kent County School-Justice Partnership are willing to do anything they can to keep kids in the classroom learning every day, and they recognize the barriers many children face in their educational journey.

“Some kids do not have stable housing or food every day,” she said. “School provides children with the resources and stability that help combat these trajectory-changing events. Kids who drop out of school are at a significantly higher risk of involvement in the criminal justice system, lower paying jobs, depression, anxiety, homelessness and chronic illness.” 

Under Feeney’s leadership the agendas are wide-ranging but always centered on the problem of absenteeism and the many complicating factors that lead to young people missing school.

It’s important work, says Kent ISD truancy and attendance officer Mark Larson.

At the recent meeting, Larson, who has been a member since February 2015, outlined for the group some of the data he has been digging into recently, especially on chronic absenteeism.

No one in this process… is punitive in nature. What’s going to add stress to life is if you allow someone to get a bad pattern of school behavior already from a young age when we still have a chance to fix it.”

— Mark Larson, Kent ISD truancy and attendance officer

Through the work of the School-Justice Partnership, all Kent County public school districts now define chronic absenteeism as having missed more than 10% of scheduled school time. There was a time, says Feeney, where there wasn’t even agreement on common definitions of absenteeism, truancy and other key terms used to monitor school attendance.

“We are the first county in Michigan to adopt uniform definitions for ‘truancy’ and ‘chronic absenteeism,’” she said. “There have been bills pending in two different legislative sessions over the past six years that would give us state-wide common definitions, and none have been adopted. We decided to not wait for the state to act, so we approached the area superintendents. They formed work groups who agreed that common definitions were a great idea. So, for the past two school years, we have enjoyed common definitions within Kent County.”

‘We’re all trying to fix these problems’

Such common definitions are a boon for the work of Larson, a self-professed data lover, who can now dig into numbers that are being defined the same way across the county.

In a series of slides, he painted a picture that was both bad news and good.

“There’s good news,” he said, “in terms of chronic absenteeism and where we fall in the comparison districts, the ones that are most like us demographically. We’ve got a two-year average of 14 (percent), which is not our goal. Our goal is five percent students chronically absent or better, so we’ve got work to do. But compared to many others in the state, I think this is something to celebrate.”

Larson notes that in the last two years Kent County has averaged approximately 16,000 students who are considered chronically absent. Yet his office only gets about 10% of those students via referrals from their school districts. He’d like to see that changed, especially in the lower grade levels.

“I’ve had principals say, ‘I’m not going to add to the family stress level by sending them to your office.’ No one in this process,” he said, “from the person that opens the first referral email all the way to Judge Feeney, is punitive in nature. We’re all trying to fix these problems. What’s going to add stress to life is if you allow someone to get a bad pattern of school behavior already from a young age when we still have a chance to fix it.”

Coming Alongside Families

Third year Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston says for his district to take advantage of Kent ISD resources is an easy decision.

“We universally buy in on the importance of positive school attendance and the impact it has on student well-being and student achievement,” he said. “We also believe that truancy is a symptom of a broader problem, and our role is to come alongside a family to support them to navigate the barriers to positive school attendance.”

That’s music to the ears of Larson, who notes that some of his very preliminary research suggests that if a student had chronic absenteeism in kindergarten, first or second grades, even if it gets fixed there is very high probability that student will again exhibit chronic absenteeism in eighth grade and ninth grade.

“To me,” he said, “it just reinforces how important attendance is in those early years.”

‘Strive for Less Than Five’ Enters Second Year

Also reinforcing the importance of attendance is Kent ISD’s “Strive for Less Than Five” campaign, which launched last year to preach the power of school attendance in the early years and beyond.

The campaign, based on a Grand Rapids Public Schools campaign that over a five-year period saw chronic absenteeism drop from 36.4% to 13.7%,  continues in the 2019-2020 school year and features teacher materials, posters, yard signs, templates for parent letters, YouTube videos, television public service announcements, social media materials and more, all provided by the Kent ISD communications and marketing team.

Across Kent County, all 20 public school districts are delivering a message to students and their parents about school attendance: strive for less than five days absent this school year.

And almost every month, in a windowless multipurpose room on the third floor of the Kent County Courthouse building, a disparate, passionate group of people is striving to do what it can to reinforce that message and to provide every youth in Kent County an equal opportunity to improve their educational success.


Op-ed: Be there; absence is a dead end

Present, Engaged, and Accounted For The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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