The School Committee election is over and as we begin our discussions on the hiring of a new superintendent we must not forget to address solutions to pressing problems that exist in our school system.
Therefore, at our last School Committee meeting I not only spoke about reviewing our policy on cell phones (as mentioned in my last column) but suggested that we continue our discussion on “Chronic absenteeism,” for I have stayed on this problem for several years. Remember, if you have read other columns that I have written on this topic, chronic absenteeism is all about students who miss more than 18 days during the school year.
My suggestion at last week’s meeting was to have administration consider placing the importance of “Chronic absenteeism” data in all schools accountability plans. This way schools know its significance and can address the issue with an action plan and with bench marks. That idea was rebuffed by our School Superintendent Melinda Boone who will be departing to Virginia as Norfolk’s new superintendent. She indicated that we shouldn’t add on more to the school’s accountability plans for we could end up with many items. My answer to that is shouldn’t “Chronic Absenteeism” be a priority for our school system?
I was the one who brought this situation to administration in a form of an agenda item several years ago. I did suggest an “Attendance Matters” campaign and administration did implement one but it can’t stop the problem with just the talk for we need an action plan. Last year’s statistics in the Worcester Public Schools show that 12.7% of students were chronically absent, a slight increase from the following year when we had the attendance campaign.
Let me remind our readers and the school administration that studies indicate attendance is a key predictor in determining student success in school. Common sense and research recommends that being in school on a consistent basis is essential for children to gain a strong foundation for subsequent learning. Research shows that children, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status or ethnicity, lose out when they are chronically absent. Children chronically absent even in the kindergarten show lower levels of achievement in math, reading and general knowledge during first grade. Going to school regularly in the early years is especially critical for children from families living in poverty, who are less likely to have the resources to help children make up for lost time in the classroom. Among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of fifth grade. The students who are chronically absent the most in the Worcester Public Schools are our comprehensive high school students with figures closer to 20%. Grades 10, 11 and 12 show the highest amount!
We all know about the achievement gap in education! Poor attendance contributes to an achievement gap for students struggling with poverty and those from communities of color. Poor attendance is also most prevalent with our Hispanic students. The research is quite clear for there is a strong connection between school attendance and student achievement. It reveals the critical importance of intervening as soon as absences begin to add up, whether early in a child’s school career or at the beginning of the school year.
We need to make this a PRIORITY in our school system and at the present time it isn’t! Strong, ongoing partnerships among schools, families and community agencies to implement comprehensive approaches are critical to ensuring all children have the opportunity to attend school every day. Here is what I suggested last year…
“The best predictor of chronic absenteeism is a history of continuing poor attendance. The schools need to list those students at each grade level and start putting together an individual educational plan. The individual schools need to use their community partners and figure out available resources to motivate and assist the students. The support could be in the form of a personalized welcome to school or visits to the home from teachers or a community member. The schools, as part of their plan, can assign a mentor to the students and the mentor can check in with the students daily and call home for each absence. If the student is struggling with his school work or social dynamics the mentor would be there to help.Mentors could come from the community, Big Brother / Big Sister organizations, groups such as A.C.E. or Latino Educational Institute, church groups or from the colleges.Let’s also have each school team establish goals and benchmarks for the year and use the attendance data on a weekly basis to monitor their progress.”
Other ideas, according to research, show that engaging programs before and after school can improve attendance. Community walk to school programs or buddies has also been helpful. Some students may need support with medical and dental or mental health challenges and again this would all be addressed in the student’s individual education plan.
In addition I want our next Superintendent to PRIORITIZE ATTENDANCE (Chronic Absenteeism)… Let’s make it clear that improving attendance is one of the school systems top priorities. The next superintendent needs to ask teachers and school leaders to make it one of theirs as well. The superintendent needs to establish a committee that will oversee this priority and come up with an action plan and bench marks. In addition, the superintendent needs to make this a broadly shared civic responsibility. Work with city government…including the Mayor, community members, church groups and local businesses about this important issue and use data to raise a public awareness, establish targets and goals and assure accountability.
I also want our next school committee to pay more attention to chronic absenteeism because it is integral to advancing academic achievement. Poor attendance will affect increases in kindergarten readiness, advances in third grade reading, narrowing the achievement gaps and increases graduation rates. Let’s move on this issue
This article is also published on GoLocalWorcester.com