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.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.