Iowa educators tackle chronic absenteeism among young students

Students who fall behind early struggle later

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DES MOINES — Missing too many school days — especially for young students — can result in failure to reach key educational benchmarks and an increased likelihood of dropping out down the road, studies suggest.

So educational leaders across Iowa have set out to minimize the number of school children who are missing a large number of school days.

Their goal is to develop plans that would reach chronically absent students and get them to school before they fall behind and wind up on a path from which they can’t recover.

“We know when students fall behind early, the problems compound,” Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said at last week’s first meeting of the state’s Chronic Absenteeism Advisory Council. “At the heart of this work is a focus on early identification and intervention.”

Early absences lead to dropouts

One in 10 Iowa kindergartners was chronically absent in the 2010-11 school year, according to an analysis of state education department data conducted by the Des Moines-based Child and Family Policy Center.

Those students were more than one-and-a-half times less likely than their peers to be reading proficiently by third grade, a benchmark that educators have deemed critical for educational success.

Students who cannot read sufficiently by third grade often struggle to keep pace with their peers. According to a 2012 national study by the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, they are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, 10 percent of students in grades K-8 and 14.3 percent in grades K-12 miss 10 percent of schools days. In the Iowa City district, those numbers are 5.4 percent and 8.4 percent respectively.

For comparison, the state average is 6.6 percent for K-8 and 8.8 percent for K-12.

“It’s so foundational and it’s so important,” said Linda Fandel, a special assistant for education in Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration and the council’s facilitator.

The state defines chronic absence as missing 10 percent of school days. For schools that use a 180-day calendar, that means at least 18 days, or roughly three and a half school weeks.

One council member noted although that may sound like a lot, it averages out to two days per month during the school year.

Root causes

Unlike older students, young schoolchildren typically miss school for excused reasons, illness being the most common.

But for students who are chronically absent, other common issues arise in addition to chronic illness, according to the Child and Family Policy Center report — a lack of resources or reliable transportation for the parents and high family mobility. The report also suggests some schools do not sufficiently warn parents of the dangers of chronic absenteeism.

Other outside factors such as neighborhood distress or community violence also can lead to chronic absenteeism, the report says.

Because of those symptoms, children from low-income families are three to four times more likely to be chronically absent, the report says. And in Iowa, that adversely affects minority students.

“We have some of the largest disparities by race and ethnicity in the country,” said Anne Discher, communications director for the Child and Family Policy Center. “This data very much reflects the broader conversations we should be having.”

But chronic absenteeism is not confined to small pockets of the state. Ten percent or more kindergartners were chronically absent in one-third of Iowa districts and nearly 40 percent of elementary schools in the policy center’s study.

“This is an issue that really is not limited to a given set of school districts or a given set of schools,” Discher said. “It is a widespread challenge.”

Developing solutions

The advisory council, which will meet a total of four times this summer and fall, is charged with developing recommendations to make to the Branstad administration, which can then pass along suggestions to school districts.

“The goal is to make at least one high-quality recommendation that helps support the work schools want to do and need to do,” Fandel said. “This does feel like something we can do something about.”

While chronic absenteeism is an issue through all grades K-through-12 and is highest among high schoolers, the council will focus its work on young students — kindergartners through third-graders — because they think that is where they can make the greatest impact.

Amy Williamson, the state education department’s Bureau of School Improvement chief, said the policy center’s data shows a need for “a really good early warning system” that would help educators “help kids very early on so they don’t have persistent patterns of not attending school or persistent problems with not learning to read.”

“Everything we can do to intervene as early as possible is the best thing we can do for kids,” Williamson said.

Some Iowa districts already are addressing chronic absenteeism. Waterloo’s Bell to Bell program, for example, stresses to students the importance of being at school on time in the morning and has a staff member dedicated to reaching out to families whose children have had chronic absences in the past.

The United Way of the Quad Cities Area has used grant money to employ Attendance Works, a national program that, according to its website, partners with families and community agencies to intervene when poor attendance is a problem for students or schools.

The council’s goal is not to establish new policy or mandates, but to develop recommendations, such as a list of best practices, to pass on to school districts.

“There’s never a one-size-fits-all (solution). We are never going to come out of this advisory council with, ‘All districts should do X.’ That’s not how this works,” Williamson said. “What we can do is say, ‘All districts should have the following resources.’”

The Chronic Absenteeism Advisory Council members include:

Lisa Bartusek, Iowa Association of School Boards executive director

Irma Becerra, English Language Learner and Migrant Program assistant, Marshalltown Community School District

Connie Boesen, Des Moines Community School District School Board member

Martha Bruckner, Council Bluffs Community School District superintendent

Charles Bruner, Child & Family Policy Center emeritus founding executive director

Anne Discher, Child & Family Policy Center communications director/senior research associate

Linda Fandel, Branstad-Reynolds Administration special assistant for education/Iowa Chronic Absenteeism Advisory council facilitator

Jaci Feuss, Cedar Falls Community School District kindergarten teacher

Ruth Ann Gaines, state representative, Des Moines

Rita Hart, state senator, Wheatland

Roark Horn, School Administrators of Iowa executive director

Chad Jensen, Fifth Judicial District of Iowa chief juvenile court officer

Kevin Koester, state representative, Ankeny

Jean Kresse, United Way of Story County president and CEO/ United Ways of Iowa board chair

Kari McCann, Iowa Council of Foundations president

Becky Miles-Polka, Campaign for Grade-Level Reading senior consultant, Iowa lead

Pam Nation, Ankeny Community School District middle school at-risk resource/special education teacher, and Professional Educators of Iowa representative

Scott Parry, Kluckhohn Elementary School principal, Le Mars Community School District

Deborah Reed, Iowa Reading Research Center director

Jerry Riibe, Muscatine Community School District superintendent

Amy Sinclair, state senator, Allerton

Elliott Smith, Iowa Business Council executive director

Chad Steckel, New Albin Elementary School principal, Eastern Allamakee Community School District

Annette Taylor, assistant Polk County attorney

Tammy Wawro, Iowa State Education Association president

Amy Whittington, PK-6 elementary principal, Central Decatur Community School District

Paulette Wiley, Des Moines community activist and family advocate

Thatcher Williams, Iowa PTA

Amy Williamson, Iowa Department of Education Bureau of School Improvement chief

Ryan Wise, Iowa Department of Education director

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