Type “chronic absenteeism” into Google on your browser and you see about 124,000,000 search results.
Next, type in “solution for chronic absenteeism;” you’ll see about 841,000,000 search results.
Not all of them are related to the problem experienced in Rio Rancho Public Schools, but Student Services Executive Director Sherri Carver would like to see even a handful of those 841 million results bear fruit.
“Chronically absent or chronic absenteeism means that a student has been absent for 10 percent or more of classes or school days for any reason, whether excused or not, when enrolled for more than 10 days,” Carver said. “That’s about 18 instructional days.”
It’s been determined that high absenteeism rates result in high dropout rates, low scores on standardized tests, tougher times finding employment and more reliance on welfare.
Carver told the RRPS school board at its Sept. 12 meeting that chronic absenteeism and student behavior were the biggest challenges facing her department.
She told the Observer on Sept. 19 that if chronic absenteeism could be rated as an 8 (on a 10 scale) for the 2021-22 school year, she’d categorize it as a 7 for the current school year.
“Since we started (school) in August, attendance is better,” she said. But that doesn’t mean acceptable..
By the chronic absenteeism numbers compiled by the district for the 2021-22 school year – most of which was in-school, mask-less learning as the pandemic waned – Shining Stars Preschool had one of the highest rates, 40 percent.
Independence High School, overall, led the way with a 56.1 percent rate. That was determined by the student enrollment — 294 students — and 90 of them were categorized as chronic absenteeism students.
Seven other secondary schools were above 25 percent: Rio Rancho High (36.3), Cleveland High (34.8), Rio Rancho Middle School (28.4), Eagle Ridge Middle School (26.7 percent), Lincoln Middle School (26.3), Mountain View Middle School (24.6), Cyber Academy (23.6).
Other than two elementary schools (Colinas del Norte at 20.7 and Vista Grande at 20.2), the rest were under 20 percent; something or someone is doing things to keep kids coming back to these elementary schools, especially at Sandia Vista (4.6), Joe Harris (7.9), Ernest Stapleton (9.3)
Chronic absenteeism isn’t the reason New Mexico’s education ranks 50th or so nationally, because chronic absenteeism is the common denominator in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia.
Also common is the desperate search for a solution.
The New Mexico Public Education Department wants all 89 school districts to have “Attendance Improvement Plans.” They’re due by Friday, Sept. 30.
The act came about during the 2019 state legislative session. Carver said every principal must submit his or her school plan.
“We’ve done one every year, but this year, across the state, our chronic absenteeism has risen significantly,” Carver said. “COVID-related illnesses were a big part of that, because kids still had to stay home for those requirements.
“They don’t want to come for various reasons, and we have found that some time bullying is a reason they don’t want to come,” she said.
When she was the principal at Rio Rancho High School for four years (2016-20), Carver said she’d rate it as a 4. “I didn’t see as much chronic absenteeism. Yes, they were absent, but not day-after-day-after-day. So, what’s different now? I think it’s a little bit harder to get them back into a routine, because (during the pandemic), they were able to stay at home and do their work from home, and now they’re like, ‘Why can’t I do that again?’”
When asked if students’ parents are complicit, she said, “I don’t think parents overall are complicit, but we do have parents who call and say, ‘I can’t get Johnny out of bed. He refuses to come. Can you help me?’”
That’s not likely for elementary students.
“The absenteeism starts going up seventh, eighth and ninth,” she said. “Ninth grade is a key area for dropouts. Absenteeism and failing Algebra I are key data points for students who are going to struggle to graduate – in ninth grade.”
Carver said there are four tiers, or ways to intervene absenteeism:
Tier 1: Making school fun, making the climate positive, doing activities that kids want to come to school for.
Tier 2: “Let’s start working directly with the families, see what the issue is. How can we support them, because they can’t get their kid out of bed or transport them or they need supplies,” she said. “It’s hard work.”
Tier 3: Having parents sign a student-attendance contract. Possible referrals to counselors, social workers, outside mental-health even juvenile-probation officers.
Tier 4: Collaboration with Children, Youth and Families Dept. With high school students, maybe a referral to Cyber Academy, for online learning. “We always do the 3-, 5-, 7- and 10-day letters,” Carver said. “A 10-day letter is you’re fixing to be dropped, so we definitely want to get CYFD involved. We can go as far as preparing a truancy packet … we did a few of those last year.”
Strangely, it may seem now, considering the myriad parents who said their kids missed their friends at school during remote learning, now that’s almost the opposite, Carver said.
“I know anxiety has increased in our students, coming back into normalcy, being around other students, engaging with other students, social interactions,” she said.
The attitude among some students, Carver said, is “I got used to staying home. I like staying home. I like working alone – and now you’re putting me back in that environment I don’t enjoy,” she said. “Every counselor in this district will tell you that: Anxiety has increased.”
“When they’re absent, they’re missing key pieces of academics,” she said. “I think the key is making it engaging. … They want to be entertained, just like they are on social media, gaming and television and all those things. You can’t expect them to ‘sit and git.’”
Attendance Improvement Plans
With the new academic year come tasks for all schools related to the Attendance for Success Act:
- All school districts are required to submit an Attendance Improvement Plan to the Public Education Department by Sept. 30.
- Schools in which all students, or any subgroup, had 5 percent or greater chronic absentee rate during the 2021-22 school year must complete an Attendance Improvement Plan using the Attendance Improvement Plan Application.
- All public schools, regardless of their chronic absence rate, shall develop and implement a whole-school absence prevention strategy using the Attendance Improvement Plan Application.
Here’s one for you before reading further; the top 10 excuses for kids not going to school:
- Can’t wake up early
- Noise inside the classroom
- Other diseases, such as diarrhea
- Parents asking them to be absent
- Preoccupation with household chores
- No money to buy snacks in school
- Bullied by a classmate/classmates
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT SCHOOL ABSENTEEISM
(From the EdVocate/Aug. 2019)
Recent studies have shown that 1 in 7 American students misses up to a month of school. Amounting to almost 8 million students, the numbers continue to grow. Chronic absenteeism is a very active condition in our schools, with serious consequences.
So how can we encourage students to show up?
Start at home: Have an open dialogue with parents and family members about the importance of attendance, making clear how chronic absences will affect the student. Discuss the conditions of the home to get an understanding of the things that may be keeping a student from school. Working closely with family and keeping communication lines open could potentially encourage parents to become more invested in getting their child to school consistently. Furthermore giving parents a direct person, or caseworker, to collaborate with will help them feel supported by the school system and therefore more motivated to do their part at home.
Hold schools accountable: Schools must put together a team whose focus will solely be on improving attendance. This team will collect and evaluate data on absences, gather resources, and be responsible for connecting students, families, faculty, staff, and other related personnel. This team should also be responsible for contacting families on a regular basis to keep up to date on students.
Schools should also create a school environment, or culture, that will motivate students to go to school. Schools would have to analyze themselves from the ground up, considering all aspects of the environment they are creating for students. This includes facilities, resources, curriculum, after-school programs, teacher performance, etc. Specifically, relations between teachers and staff must be examined and considered. On top of that, schools need to be diligent about observing student-student relationships. This is especially important in the context of bullying, which is counted as one of the major reasons students are chronically absent.
In addition, schools should also give recognition to good attendance through awards, prizes, and celebration of academic improvements (i.e. higher grades, better scores, etc.).
Involve the community: Schools and communities should come together and organize mentoring programs, work with city transit departments and health groups in order to give students and their families different avenues to pursue outside of school. By connecting students with adults or other youth, absentee students will feel supported while being held accountable for their attendance at school.
Work in policy: To address chronic absenteeism in schools, the Department of Education passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. This federal law requires school districts to include chronic absences as part of their yearly reports. States were charged with maintaining accountability when logging school absences. However, in the trickle-down effect of putting this federal law into action, States were left to create their own policy. Then, when policy reached districts, it was left up to them to determine the details. This means that the definition of an “absence” varies from district to district, from state to state, and the information gathered is not always consistent or accurate.
Districts and schools must work together to establish goals to improve and sustain better attendance; these goals will ensure that districts and schools are held accountable and will focus their efforts continuously.
Ensuring that students make it out the doors of their homes and then through the gates of school is a group effort. Chronic absenteeism must be addressed at every level, from the top with policymaking, to districts, to schools, and then to the space of the home. Only if all these parts work together can chronic absenteeism be improved.