Encouraging Daily Attendance for all students is More Important Than Ever

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ISBE shares federal guidance and toolkit to address chronic absenteeism  

SPRINGFIELD, IL — The Illinois State Board of Education is sharing valuable federal guidance, including a toolkit, to help school districts encourage daily attendance for all students.

“Research is clear that students who are chronically absent from school are much more likely to struggle academically and eventually drop out,” said State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith, Ph.D. “We want to share best practices and give school districts the tools and resources they need to address these students’ needs and prevent others from missing precious instruction time.”

On Friday, Superintendent Smith sent Illinois superintendents a letter from Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that discusses the need to address chronic absenteeism. Chronic absence is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a year for any reason, excused or unexcused. With an estimated 5 to 7 ½ million students chronically absent each year, chronic absenteeism is a national problem that seriously undermines collective efforts to improve education and life outcomes among our youth, the letter states.

On Oct. 7, leaders of the U.S. Departments of Education (ED), Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice announced their long-term commitment to building capacity across the federal government to support states and local communities in the work of addressing and eliminating chronic absenteeism. These agencies called upon states and local education, health, housing, and justice agencies and organizations, in partnership with community stakeholders, to join forces and commit to creating or enhancing coordinated, cross-sector systems for identifying and supporting students who are, or are at risk of becoming, chronically absent, with the goal of reducing chronic absenteeism by at least 10 percent each year, beginning in the 2015-16 school year.

In order to support communities in addressing and eliminating barriers to students’ daily attendance at, and meaningful engagement with, school – particularly for students who are low income, of color, homeless, highly mobile, juvenile justice-involved, and/or who are students with disabilities – these federal agencies released “Every Student, Every Day: A Community Toolkit to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism.” The toolkit is available at www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/chronicabsenteeism/index.html.

The toolkit will provide information and resources to help ensure that all young people are in school every day and benefitting from coordinated systems of support. To help achieve the goal of reducing chronic absenteeism by at least 10 percent per year, State Superintendent Smith and other leaders of state and local education, health, housing, and justice systems have been asked to immediately address and collaborate on the following action steps:

Action Step 1: Generate and act on absenteeism data. Prioritize the development of early warning prevention and intervention systems that identify students who are, or are at risk of becoming, chronically absent before they miss enough school that it is nearly impossible for them to catch up. Data from such systems should be shared – in a manner consistent with applicable state law and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – between school districts and other key public and private organizations to ensure coordinated systems of support for students who are chronically absent.

Action Step 2: Create and deploy positive messages and measures. Focus on developing positive messages for youth and families as well as implementing supportive engagement strategies. For instance, these strategies may include mentoring, counseling, and creating safe and supportive school climates through approaches such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports to improve students’ attendance at, connection to, and success in school. Punitive messages and measures are often ineffective and can lead to disproportionate suspensions and expulsions from school and inappropriate referrals of students and families to law enforcement.

Action Step 3: Focus communities on addressing chronic absenteeism. Launch local initiatives to raise public awareness about the causes and effects of chronic absenteeism, including awareness among families and youth. Prioritize training within communities and across sectors to conduct root-cause analyses of local absenteeism trends. Implement research and evidence-based strategies and programs – such as “Check & Connect” – that effectively engage and support students who are, or are at risk of becoming, chronically absent.

Action Step 4: Ensure responsibility across sectors. Regularly communicate that chronic absenteeism is a problem that affects the whole community, not just those students who are chronically absent and their families. Drive and evaluate cross-sector performance, at least in part, based on that principle. Education, health, housing, and justice system leaders should work together to ensure shared accountability within and across sectors to successfully address the local, underlying causes of chronic absenteeism.

The letter to states emphasizes how frequent absences from school can be “devastating” to a student’s future:

For example, children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the third grade. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school. By high school, irregular attendance is a better predictor of school dropout than test scores. A study of public school students in Utah found that a student who is chronically absent in even a single school year between the eighth and twelfth grades is over seven times more likely to drop out of school than a student who is not chronically absent. Students who are homeless and those who reside in public housing are also particularly at risk of being chronically absent from school.

 

Research further demonstrates that completing high school is not only a strong predictor of adult success but also of adult physical and mental health outcomes and involvement with the criminal justice system. Students who do not graduate from high school have worse health and greater health risks as adults than their peers who graduate. They also have more frequent, negative contact with law enforcement, contributing to a cycle of poverty, poor health, homelessness, and incarceration. These data strongly suggest that the long-term consequence of chronic absenteeism is a population that is less educated, less healthy, underemployed, less financially stable, and more disenfranchised. 

 

We recognize that attendance tracking systems in many school districts across the country are not required or designed to measure chronic absenteeism among local youth.  In fact, efforts to improve average daily attendance often mask the extent of a school’s chronic absenteeism problem and fail to address its underlying causes. Adding to the challenge, educators, families, and youth are not sufficiently aware of the frequency and negative impact of chronic absence from school. In many school districts and communities, the focus is on “unexcused” absences or truancy at the middle and high school level, even though research shows that chronic absence in the early grades is also a major problem, whether excused or unexcused. Common interventions are often punitive in nature and blame is frequently placed on students and their families. Ultimately, such responses have the deleterious, if unintended, effect of making school less, not more, engaging for students and families, and these practices undermine efforts to assist our most struggling schools and students.

 

In spring 2016, ED will release the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), including the first-ever school-level data on all students across the nation who missed at least 15 days of school for any reason, which translates into approximately 8.5 percent of a typical school year. We anticipate that the CRDC will shed new light on the scope of the chronic absenteeism problem, including where it is most prevalent and whom it most affects, and further catalyze efforts to engage students who are, or are at risk of becoming, chronically absent.

 

However, we can and must do more now to address the negative and disparate outcomes experienced by students who are chronically absent.  By acting early and effectively in a coordinated, cross-sector manner – from the federal government to every school and community in the country – we can dramatically improve the academic and life outcomes of millions of young people who have been disengaged from a daily, supportive school experience. The health and well-being of our nation demands that we do no less.

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