Higher education

Research says chronically absent students are less likely to succeed academically

11 percent of Cedar Rapids elementary students fit into that category

A cursive alphabet in a Coolidge Elementary School classroom in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
A cursive alphabet in a Coolidge Elementary School classroom in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Last school year, the principal at Wright Elementary sometimes started his work day at a student’s front door.

Anything to get kids to class.

“Students are standing there with a big smile on their face,” Principal Brian Krob said. “They’re a little shocked and a little surprised that Mr. Krob is picking them up for school.”

Krob — with the school’s student support liaison and office secretary — helped families with transportation issues because, he said, being at school is critical to learning. A significant portion of students at Wright Elementary and throughout the Cedar Rapids Community School District struggle with attendance.

About 11 percent of the district’s elementary students — kindergartners through fifth-graders — miss at least 15 days of school in an academic year, about 10 percent of class, according to district data.

That many absences earns them the moniker of “chronically absent.”

Educators in Cedar Rapids say parents often don’t realize their children are chronically absent, or how detrimental those absences can be to their child’s learning.

Missing 10 percent of school can add up quickly. In a typical nine-month school year, it can be missing as few as two days a month.

Children who miss that much class time, according to the national not-for-profit Attendance Works, are less likely to read on grade level by the end of third grade, or to eventually graduate high school.

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Cedar Rapids schools’ rate of chronically absent students is higher than most districts in Iowa, where the state average is 7 percent. Gov. Terry Branstad formed a state advisory council in June to address chronic absences.

Traditional attendance data, until recently, has masked this crisis, Cedar Rapids Superintendent Brad Buck said. The average daily attendance rate — how many students, on any given day, are in class — in the district’s elementary schools is more than 95 percent.

“We used to get those numbers and say, yeah, we’re looking pretty good,” said Paul Hayes, the district’s director of learning supports. “You can get a little complacent. Now, we’ve got more robust data to inform our work.”

Chronic-absenteeism data, which was released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for the first time in June, shows that many of the same students in Cedar Rapids make up that missing five percent day after day.

“This is a topic that’s emerging that hasn’t really been a talking point in schools,” Buck said. “I think the federal government has taken a leadership role and really elevated this topic of discussion.”

Ahead of the issue’s national spotlight, staff at Wright Elementary, where almost 13 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2014-2015 school year, participated in the Reading Into Success program last school year in an effort to reduce the school’s rate.

The community program, headed by the United Way, focuses on reading proficiency. One piece of the program’s strategy zeros in on attendance.

In partnership with a student support liaison already working at the school — who, Krob said, focused on building relationships with the school’s families — the program’s awareness campaign cut chronic attendance rates in half.

In August and September, students were sent home with fliers explaining the consequences of an absence — “one day missed equals three days of catch-up” — and information was made available at school fundraisers, said Laura Columbus of the United Way of East Central Iowa.

Then, before students went on winter break, teachers added up all the days a student had missed and shared that number with parents during end-of-the-year conferences, as well as the number of days the average student had missed.

“When parents become aware of that, if their child has missed significantly more, that number tends to go down,” Columbus said.

It’s social comparison theory — most people want to be evaluated well compared to their peers, she said. Chronically absent students whose parents were told they were missing more school than the average child went on to be absent only an average 4.6 days for the rest of the year.

That’s a contrast to the year before when the same group of students missed 10.8 days from January to June.

At the district level, Hayes said Wright’s practices could be implemented at more elementary schools, and the district will share Wright’s data with other district schools in August.

Honest dialogue

While traditional attendance interventions — which identify truancy and can, at the extreme, mean jail time for a parent — often depend on the number of absences a student has, they often also hinge on the type of absence. A student missing class with a sick note, for example, is less likely to raise a red flag than a student without an excuse.

“‘Chronic’ is, for whatever reason, they’ve missed this many days whether it’s excused, unexcused, health-related, vacation, whatever,” Hayes said. “Sending the message to parents that an absence is an absence no matter the reason — they’re missing instruction.”

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That message can be received as supportive, rather than being bothersome or punitive, if it comes from someone with a relationship with the family of a chronically absent child, Buck said.

Elementary students usually aren’t to blame for a slew of absences, said Truancy Officer Karl Werner. A lack of resources could make it difficult for a child to get to and from school everyday.

“If you’re a family that has adequate support, you have a tendency to be there more,” Werner said. “When they’re younger, they depend on the resources more so than anything else.”

Instead of focusing on punishing a student for absences, Werner said he tries to work with families to identify the source of an attendance problem.

Opening up an honest dialogue with families can be helpful — calling a child in sick, for example, is sometimes used to cover up other problems such as transportation issues or a reluctant, falling-behind student.

“We are only trying to make sure your kid gets an adequate education,” Werner said. “In order for that to happen, they’ve got to be there. That’s the only way.”

Principal Krob echoed that sentiment, saying he doesn’t want to come across as “the bad guy” when he knocks on a student’s door before classes start at 9 a.m.

Students usually are eager to climb in his pickup truck and head to class, Krob said, and they’ll tell him about missing the bus or how their ride fell through that morning.

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More often, they’ll chat about their siblings and tell Krob about their favorite teachers.

“I think kids really want to be here,” he said. “They want to have the opportunity to be at school.”

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