AURORA — Early Wednesday morning Aurora Central High School Principal Mark Roberts met with a student who has not attended a single day of school since the start of the school year.
Like he does with every student who is considered truant but wants to return to the classroom, he reviewed the student’s transcript and her options to either graduate or complete a GED program. He also spoke with the student and her mother about the student’s living conditions, her need to work, and her future goals.
“Each student has their struggle,” he said later in an interview. “It goes beyond just school. There are usually deeper issues attached to each student as to why they are not attending.”
Wednesday’s meeting is just one of many Roberts is likely to have this year.
As part of a recent reshuffling of districtwide resources and a renewed effort to address the social and emotional needs of students including their daily attendance, Aurora Public Schools has launched or expanded a series of initiatives to ensure more students are at their desks each day. That includes reaching out to students and their families early and often about the importance of attendance, identifying family needs and trying to meet them, and providing technology to parents to monitor their students classroom activities.
APS students who rack up more than four unexcused absences are considered truant. At Aurora Central High, the average student is likely to miss six times as many days, according to attendance data collected by the state. The school, mostly poor students of color with limited English skills, has the tenth highest truancy rate of any school in the entire state.
Reasons why students aren’t showing up for class at Aurora Central — or any school for that matter — include living in poverty, family trauma, or health-related issues, said Jocelyn Stephens, an APS administrator who oversees a cluster of schools including Aurora Central High.
Find your school’s average daily attendance and truancy rate here.
“You have to be present to learn,” Stephens said.
Making sure students are in class to learn is a critical task for the Aurora school system, which is entering its fourth year on the state’s accountability watch list. APS has two years to improve student test scores and its graduation rate or face state sanctions.
Like most school districts across the state, APS’s average daily attendance is stronger at its primary schools than at its secondary schools. About 96 percent of elementary school students are present each day, about 94 percent show up to their middle schools Monday through Friday, and 90 percent of high school students are there on time for first period.
But a closer look at individual schools’ average daily attendance shows grave disparities.
Aurora Quest K-8 has the highest daily attendance rate of all the suburb’s primary schools at 96.82 percent. That’s 11 points higher than the lowest, the Jamaica Child Development Center.
There’s about a three percentage point spread among APS’s middle schools, the lowest being 90 percent at North Middle School.
But the daily attendance gap is the widest at the high school level. At William Smith High, 93 percent of students show up regularly. At Aurora Central, barely 8 out of every 10 students are present each day.
While states are required to collect truancy data under federal law, each state may define truancy as it sees fit. That makes it difficult to compare attendance trends across state lines and identify solutions to a common problem.
But according to school attendance expert Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, the most common attendance data — average daily attendance and truancy percentages — masks what she considers a significant and neglected problem they call “chronic absenteeism.” That’s when a student misses more than 10 percent of the school year, or two days per month, according to Attendance Works.
Research completed by Chang and others has discovered a strong correlation between attendance and student achievement. The more school a student misses, Chang said, the more likely that student is to be behind grade level and to eventually dropout.
“Chances are very slim a chronically absent student will be as successful as his or her peers,” Chang said.
Among Attendance Works’ suggestions to combat chronic absenteeism: track both excused and unexcused absences and engage families early and often about the importance of perfect attendance. Further, schools should reward students and families for their daily participation not punish them.
“There are still places that suspend students for being truant,” Chang said. “Who would reward a student with a suspension for being truant — it just doesn’t make sense.”
Schools should also understand why students are missing school and not jump to any conclusions, Chang said.
“I really worry that in low income schools, when a kid doesn’t show up to school, what’s the reaction?” Chang said. “The parents don’t care. [Some teachers] have no idea of the issues related to that family. So what happens, the teacher’s reaction is to blame the kid, or blame the parent, and it further alienates the family.”
APS does not track chronic absenteeism in the same fashion as Attendance Works has for some school districts. But officials said they’re beginning to pay more attention to excused absences as much as unexcused absences.
The local focus now appears to be three-fold: empower schools to proactively monitor attendance, provide whatever service is available to and needed by families of students who are at risk of becoming truant, and keep students out of the truancy court system.
“Schools are encouraged to respond right away,” Stephens, the school network director said, but also on a case-by-case basis. No two absences are alike. The most common response to a missed day is a phone call or home visit.
Schools, especially those who serve predominantly poor students, are beefing up their services. Family centers that provide food, clothing, and other resources are opened at Jewell and Crawford elementary schools. The aim is to engage the whole family, explain the importance of school, and to eliminate as many barriers as possible to make sure the students are in their desks every day.
Student engagement directors are working with teams of school officials to reach out to students — especially at the high school level — after a second or third unexcused absence. Previously those directors only became involved after a fourth absence that could triggered a trip truancy court.
“It’s a tedious process,” said Chris Vann, an APS student engagement advocate, referring to truancy court. There are generally multiple court dates spread across several months and most students leave the system with little more than a societal stigma.
As for the Aurora Central High student who has missed every day of class since August? She’ll be in class, not court.
“We discussed at length the options available at Aurora Central and asked her to commit to one of the success plans presented that fits her current situation,” said Roberts, the school’s principal. “She is being enrolled and has a solid plan in place to finish school.”