Evidence shows missing school in younger grades does hurt

Keeping the ‘Monster’ Out and Students in Class

Uniform New Rules Aim to Boost School Attendance

by Linda Odette  

Truancy and chronic absenteeism have been described by educators as "the monster at the door." Kent ISD school districts are trying to ensure the monster stays out with new attendance rules this year.

Students with higher absenteeism perform lower in every grade and have a higher likelihood of dropping out, officials say.

"Students who miss school quickly fall behind their peers," says Ron Koehler, Kent ISD assistant superintendent. "It's difficult to catch up and many don't."

The state Legislature has been working on a uniform attendance policy, but Kent County education leaders decided the problem was too important to wait for legislators to act. A group of district superintendents, representatives from Kent County Juvenile Court, the Kent County School Justice Partnership and others created a new policy with common definitions that went into effect at the beginning of the school year.

"To my knowledge, no one else in Michigan has attempted to adopt the common definitions," says Mark Larson, Kent ISD's truancy and attendance coordinator.

All of the Kent ISD's 20 districts agreed to defining truancy as having 10 unexcused absences in a school year. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of school days -- including both excused and unexcused absences. The goal of having the definitions is to create ways to intervene sooner when students miss too many days, and to gather better data for finding solutions.

"This problem needed some action," Larson says.                                            New Rules for All 

Under a uniform attendance policy, truancy in the Kent ISD is defined as having 10 unexcused absences in a school year, while chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of school days. Details of the district's new policy include:


  • Students can have five absences before a first referral letter is sent to parents.

  • Some of the absences not counted for attendance intervention include snow days, medical absences, immediate family death, suspensions and expulsions. Individual schools have room for discretion.

  • Chronic absenteeism includes all absences, excused and unexcused. When a student's absences total more than 10 percent of the school year, parents will be asked to meet with the school to try to solve the problem.

  • Lost-learning time absences are partial absences for incidents like being picked up from school early, but that's not mandatory: Each school building can create its own rules for what partial absences are. Kent ISD recommends if a child misses a half day that schools count it as .5 days of lost learning time.

Reasons Behind the Missing Days

Generational and cultural issues are part of what has to be overcome to get parents to understand the problem of missing numerous school days, Larson says. For some parents, it's no big deal, he says -- in fact, some actually condone it.

"It's a values thing. They think if it's just third grade a student is missing, it's not as bad as high school."

But evidence shows missing school in younger grades does hurt. Research by Attendance Works, a national and state nonprofit addressing chronic absenteeism, showed 64 percent of students with nine or fewer absences in both kindergarten and first grade could read at grade level. Missing 18 days reduced the figure to 42 percent; missing more than 18 dropped it to 17 percent.

Poverty plays a part in some absences. Older siblings are needed to watch younger ones because parents don't have enough money to pay a sitter while they work.

Another issue is students' being excused for parent-diagnosed sickness. Explains Larson, "Sometimes parents excuse their child for being sick when they only have the sniffles." Before the new definitions, those excused absences could reach 20-30 a year, but nothing could be done. "That's why a higher standard was needed," he adds.

Koehler also sees a generational trend related to medical excuses: parents making doctor appointments for students without much consideration as to whether it will cause them to miss class. It used to be most doctor appointments were made during afternoons when students weren't in school, he says.

A reason that makes Larson shake his head: parents taking their student out of school the last hour so they don't have to wait in a long line of cars to pick up their child. While they think a half hour doesn't mean much, one or two hours every week adds up to double-digit days absent by the end of the year.

'It's important both the students and families realize attendance is important, and there are real consequences.' -- Ron Koehler, Kent ISD assistant superintendent

Judge Kathleen Feeney, of Kent County's Circuit Court Family Division, doesn't understand why a parent would want to do something that endangers their child's learning.

"Why would you want to commit them to a life of mediocrity?" Feeney asks. "Don't you always want better for your children?"

She also wants people to know that 70 to 80 percent of prisoners today are high school dropouts, and that dropping out is more likely to happen for those who are chronically absent from school.

Judge Kathleen FeeneyHow the New System Works

After a student records five absences, a referral is made to the Kent ISD truancy office by the child's school. Larson sends parents a letter informing them of the possible consequences if more days are missed.

Parents are also asked to meet with the school to figure out an action plan. Sometimes this is as simple as getting a second alarm clock for someone who falls back asleep after the first alarm, Larson says. At this point, the meeting with the school is only suggested, not mandatory.

If action isn't taken to resolve the issue and more absences occur, a second letter is sent via certified mail. The consequences of having 10 absences are explained and the family is directed to meet with the principal.

If there is documentation the school has tried to solve the problem but nothing has changed, the case is frequently sent to a crisis intervention program before being referred to the Kent County prosecutor's office. Larson last year sent 22 cases to a county-run crisis intervention program, and referred 17 cases involving nine families to the prosecutor. In extreme cases, parents could face criminal penalties, but Larson says he has never had that happen.

Sending a family to the prosecutor is a last resort and not what school officials want to happen, Larson says. "Nobody in our system has any appetite for punitive action. We want to solve the problem."

Another new part of the policy is the carryover of absences from year to year. In the past, absence numbers were not cumulative. Sometimes by the time the problem was referred to the prosecutor, it was the end of the school year. No action would be taken because of the timing, and the student started the next year with zero absences.

Now, if a student has three absences in the last 12 weeks of the school year, they count at the beginning of the next year. "You don't get a clean slate," Judge Feeney says. "It's a good policy change."

The Big Picture

Koehler hopes the changes make people think a little more about when they let their child miss school. "It's important both the students and families realize attendance is important, and there are real consequences," he says.

Below the level of chronic absence, studies have identified students with less than 80 percent attendance as being at an increased risk of dropping out. Those who drop out have a much higher chance of going down the school-to-prison pipeline.

Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Ron KoehlerOther figures from Attendance Works show:

  • Fewer than five percent of students with satisfactory attendance drop out of high school. But for students who start with poor attendance and become chronically absent, about 20 percent will drop out.
  • Attendance trends start as early as first grade, and schools can determine in September whether a student will have future attendance problems. One Michigan study showed nearly 50 percent of students who missed two to four days the first month went on to be chronically absent. Of students who missed than four days, nearly 88 percent went on to be chronically absent.
  • Students who miss 20 to 39 days have only a 28.6 percent chance of graduating within one year of their expected graduation date, a study showed. Those missing 40 or more days have only a only 13.2 percent rate of graduation within one year. Meanwhile, for those missing less than 10 days, 70 percent graduate.

Given these daunting numbers, the new rules aren't about punishing students more, Larson says; they're about helping students graduate and find success after graduation.

"I want to build life skills," Larson says. "I want them to get ready for the world of work."

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Submitted on: December 27th 2016

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