Colorado

Early grades new front in absenteeism wars

Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Sarah D. Sparks
Education Week

While many think of chronic absenteeism as a secondary school problem, research is beginning to suggest that the start of elementary school is the critical time to prevent truancy—particularly as those programs become more academic.

“Early attendance is essential; This is where you really want to work on them,” said Kim Nauer, the education project director at the Center for New York City Affairs, which studies attendance issues. “By the time you get to 5th or 6th grade, you can really get a cascade effect that you can’t recover from. How much money do we spend in a school system on all of this recuperative stuff in high school—getting the kid back and reengaged—as opposed to making sure the kids don’t slip off in elementary school?”

Yet statistics show that rates of absenteeism in kindergarten and 1st grade can rival those in high school. An average of one in 10 students younger than grade 3 nationwide is considered chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school. That’s about 18 days in a normal 180-day year, according to the San Francisco-based Attendance Counts and the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation and others.

According to the Casey foundation, which has stepped up its focus on attendance in recent years, the problem is particularly acute among students from low-income families. The foundation reports that, in 2009, more than one in five poor kindergartners was chronically absent, compared to only 8 percent of young students living above the poverty line.

Among homeless students, absenteeism can be even more common.

Reducing absenteeism is important, experts said, because studies link it to an increased likelihood of poor academic performance, disengagement from school and behavior problems. Moreover, research by the National Center for Children in Poverty shows that the same risk factors that make students more likely to become chronically absent, such as poverty-related mobility or an unstable home life, only serve to intensify the problems caused by missing school.

Ms. Nauer, whose report on early absenteeism prompted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch attendance-turnaround pilots at 25 schools this year, said educators there were surprised to learn that 10 of the 25 pilot sites are elementary schools.

“It’s so much a part of the average experience of the schools that we don’t notice it,” Ms. Nauer said. Teachers would “have about five or six kids gone on any given day, and they realized how absolutely disruptive that was, but they hadn’t really been thinking about it. Nobody even realized the little guys were missing so much school.”

Not a Priority

Hedy N. Chang, an early-absenteeism researcher and the director of Attendance Counts, said high kindergarten absences are the norm nationwide, but tend to get less attention from educators and policymakers than secondary school truancy.

Preschool and kindergarten absenteeism may be more prevalent, Ms. Chang said, because in many states kindergarten attendance is not mandatory and because parents and community members may not understand how early-learning curriculum has changed in recent years.

“Kindergarten as an academic resource is a relatively new experience,” Ms. Chang said. “Parents may think of their own experience, but kindergartners today are learning to read.”

Yet missing school early, when students are learning the most basic skills, can hamstring students in later grades and contribute to poor attendance throughout their academic careers.

The National Center for Children in Poverty found in 2008 that on average, students who missed 10 percent or more of school in kindergarten scored significantly lower in reading, math and general knowledge tests at the end of 1st grade than did students who missed 3 percent or fewer days. Moreover, the researchers found chronic absenteeism in kindergarten predicted continuing absences in later grades. A study released this year by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium showed that high school dropouts show steadily increasing chronic absenteeism for years before they actually leave school.

Family Interventions

Educators agree that improving attendance in the early grades requires a different approach than secondary school truancy interventions, because, as Ms. Chang put it, “Most 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds, they’re not home playing hooky.”

Since 2008, when the first attendance data by the Center for New York City Affairs suggested more than 90,000 of the city’s elementary school students miss more than a month of school, the Children’s Aid Society of New York has conducted school-by-school risk assessments and intervention plans to improve attendance at the 22 community-model schools with which it works.

“It’s so easy to jump to a conclusion about why a child or a group of children are absent—‘Oh, it’s the parents or it’s the students’—but we have found in our research that it’s really important to do some digging and find out what is going on,” said Katherine Eckstein, the public policy director for the Children’s Aid Society.

For example, Children’s Aid attendance monitors found young children’s absences could trigger a ripple effect in families. If younger siblings had to stay home with a flu, asthma, or other ailment, frequently older siblings missed school, too, in order to watch them while the parents worked. In the Bronx, P.S. 61 Francisco Oller School created child care and health partnerships in which staff members interview the families of students who are absent frequently. In exchange for parents ensuring all their children get to school every day on time, an outreach coordinator will arrange and escort children to doctors’ appointments at the nearby Bronx Family Center clinic, or provide school-based in- and after-school care, according to Octavia Ford, P.S.61 site coordinator. The school is working now to provide mental health and social service screenings for students anxious about coming to school.

Ms. Eckstein said her group has found that in neighborhoods with high asthma rates, schools with on-campus health centers have higher attendance than schools without those services.

“Children and families have relationships with the schools, obviously, but they also may have relationships with the Boys and Girls Club across the street or the health clinic, and you need to leverage all of those relationships,” she said.

Similarly, Providence, R.I., schools found that more than 16 percent of urban students in kindergarten through grade 3 missed 18 days of school or more. After extensive interviews with parents, administrators determined that parents’ overnight work schedules contributed heavily to the problem, as returning parents fell asleep before bringing their children to school.

In response, Robert L. Bailey, IV Elementary School created an early morning child care starting at 7 a.m., to allow parents to drop off students at the end of their shift.

This sort of parent education and family support can not only help parents and young students develop better attendance habits, but can also get disconnected families more involved in school generally, according to M. Jane Sundius, the director of education and youth development at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, which studies absenteeism.

“Even parents who don’t feel they can add much to their child’s education, if they are lauded for getting their kids to school each day … there’s so much possibility there,” Ms. Sundius said.

Republished with permission from edweek.org. Copyright © 2010 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. For more information, visit www.edweek.org.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede