Chronic absence

The entire work written for The Argus Observer. Published as a series during the week of January 27, 2015.

Education is an important part of growing up and becoming an asset to society. While many students miss a few days of school now and then, others have a more sporadic attendance record, which some education officials are dubbing chronic absence.

Chronic absence is when a student misses an excessive amount of school throughout the year and it is ultimately being linked to students failing courses and dropping out of school before graduation.

AttendanceWorks, a national and state initiative that promotes school attendance, defines chronic absence as missing ten percent or more of school days, but the tricky part is that not every state submits data on chronic absence and there are differences in the ways it is calculated.

According to AttendanceWorks’s latest study in 2012, 21 states indicated that they collect data on chronic absence. Of those states, seven base their definition on the percentage of days missed, seven definitions are based on unexcused absences, four states consider the total number of days missed, and one state based their definition on excused absences.

Though the calculations are inconsistent, a nationwide percentage of students who are chronically absent was calculated in 2012, based on the AttendanceWorks definition of missing ten percent or more of days in a school year for any reason. They concluded that, nationwide, ten to fifteen percent of kids are chronically absent.

OREGON ATTENDANCE CALCULATION

The State of Oregon was part of that report and in a 2012 press release, it was announced that 23 percent of students in Oregon were chronically absent from schools. For most districts in the state, that means that students missed 18 days or more throughout the school year.

“The thing we used to attribute it to, and this is maybe why, as a state, our absence rate is higher than most, is our migrant population,” said Ontario School District superintendent, Nicole Albisu. “It used to be that kids were missing school to work with their parents, and that could be the case now.”

In Oregon, school districts monitor their absences according to the Oregon Compulsory Attendance Law, which spells out exactly how many days a student can miss from school.

“Basically, students who are enrolled in school cannot miss more than four full days or eight half days in any four week period that school is in session,” Albisu explained. “Those are unexcused absences.”

Vale School District Superintendent, Matt Hawley, said under the law, students can have up to three consecutive excused absences before a doctor’s note is required. If a student misses ten days, consecutively, they are required to re-enroll.

Locally, according to their definition of chronic absence, Ontario School District has around 6 percent of students that fall into that category, Vale School District’s rate is around 13 percent.

IDAHO ATTENDANCE CALCULATION

According to officials from AttendanceWorks, Idaho has never done a study on chronic absence.

“At the state level, they do not do any such monitoring,” Kelly Everitt, communications specialist for the Idaho Department of Education said. “Any monitoring  is up to the individual district, there is no reporting to the state.”

There is some accountability, however, according to Fruitland District superintendent, Teresa Fabricius.

“The state is aware of our attendance because attendance is part of a formula upon which our funding is based,” Fabricius explained. “It’s the average daily attendance, or ADA. It is calculated period by period.”

Fruitland has what they’ve dubbed their “10 percent rule”, which provides repercussions at the high school level for missing too much class. Weiser School District has the same policy.

“If you miss more than 10 percent of a course, than you lose credit” Fabricius explained. “You then have to go through an appeal process not to lose credit.”

Fabricius said at the high school level, it doesn’t matter whether the absences are excused or unexcused and the rule applies to each individual class.

“They may fall into it in one class in the day and that doesn’t mean they’ve missed the entire day.” Fabricius said.

The rule applies at the middle school and high school level, but since there are no credits involved, local Idaho districts resort to meetings with parents to impress upon them the importance of attendance.

“With the primary age kids if they’re not in attendance, they quickly fall behind,” said Wil Overgaard, superintendent of Weiser School District. “We work with the families on that.”

In the past semester, Weiser High School had 40 of their 460 students that went through the appeals process to regain credits, and “3 or 4” of Payette High School’s 450 students have appealed their credits this semester, according to high school principal, Mark Heleker. Fruitland School District has 460 students typically has 30 students that fall into this category.

EXCUSING ABSENCES

Albisu said there are challenges that come with the compulsory attendance law and parents will sometimes “work the system”, allowing their children to miss the maximum amount of unexcused days within every four week period without repercussion. She said there are also challenges when it comes to excusing absences.

Many times, parents of students who have a problem with chronically missing school will provide excuses for the absences and school administrators have to keep an eye out for the red flags, such as excessive doctor visits.

“Generally, if the parents call in the secretaries don’t have a problem excusing absences,” Albisu explained. “But we have a list of parents that if they call in they won’t excuse it unless there’s a doctor’s excuse or the principal excuses it.”

Ultimately, it the the school administration that decides whether the absence is merited or not.

“The principals make the decision as to whether they are excused absences or unexcused absences,” Albisu explained. “This is challenging because we have parents saying there was a death in the family or the child wasn’t feeling well, but we have to make the call in the end.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Many times missing too much school is a trait that runs in the family and stems from situations at home.

“Generally, you’ll see the same kids in the same families being absent,” Albisu explained. “It’s a lot of work to track down these families and they aren’t always nice about it. It’s constant and it’s challenging.”

Albisu said that she’s encountered families who have gone as far as purposefully giving the school the wrong home address or or families physically hiding from school officials when they are seen out and about town during school hours.

“Sometimes it’s a lack of parenting or parenting skills,” Albisu explained, “or there may be something that’s going on with the family.”

REASONS FOR ABSENCE

AttendanceWorks communications lead, Phyllis Jordan, said there are three main categories of students who are chronically absent: kids who can’t go to school because of things like long-term illness, kids who don’t want to go to school, and kids whose parents don’t value attendance.

Area districts are understanding of things like illness and work with students who have health-related reasons for missing too much school, however there are other reasons that kids can’t make it to the classroom.

“I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve picked up from home because they didn’t have any gas for the car,” Albisu said. “We try not to transport kids in our personal vehicles, but we’ve sent the bus back in some cases.”

Hawley said he’s sent his school resource officer out to kids’ homes to pick them up because of the same problem.

There are also students who are the primary driver of the family and have to transport parents to work or siblings to school.

“I had one boy that was late every day and he was driving his parents to work every day because they weren’t documented and didn’t have drivers licenses,” Albisu said. “I had to take a hard line with him and say ‘I get that it’s a legitimate excuse but it’s not good enough, you have to get to school on time.’”

Kids who don’t want to go to school present challenges of their own and there are a myriad of reasons why a child would not want to attend school. Sometimes the reasons are academic and students can become overwhelmed if their workload is to hard or if they have an undiagnosed learning disorder, however there can be other underlying issues.

“For a lot of kids that don’t want to come to school, [the reason is] the social piece,” Hawley explained. “If a student doesn’t fit in socially, I think that’s more difficult than the academic piece for a lot of kids.”

Bullying and not having a support group at school can cause kids to want to skip their studies and avoid painful social situations.

In other situations, parents have a bleak outlook on education and don’t emphasize the importance of attendance for their children. Most kids view their parents as role models and when parents tell them that education isn’t important, the kids will stop going to school.

Often times this is a problem with the earlier grades, according to Jordan, especially in kindergarten and preschool.

“I think that there’s some people who just don’t value education,” Albisu explained. “Some parents say in kindergarten they’re just playing games and having fun. Maybe in the old days, but not today. They’re reading in kindergarten.”

EFFECTS ON EDUCATION

While it is expected that kids will miss some school throughout the year, kids who miss more than ten percent of the school year face negative repercussions.

“Kids who miss more school in middle and high school are more likely to drop out,” said Jordan.“Even starting as early as kindergarten and preschool, you can see a real correlation between attendance and achievement.”

Those kids who are chronically absent are usually the ones who have difficulties learning, Albisu explained, because they haven’t put in the time in the classroom. She also said it presents a challenge for kids who are academically behind their peers.

“The student might have a learning disability,” Albisu said, “but if they’ve missed 100 days of school, it’s really hard to determine whether it’s because of school absences or if it is because of a learning disability.”

Hawley said he’s witnessed the same thing at Vale schools and explained that “there’s a direct correlation between student academic success and attendance.”

“Your attendance rate affects success rate and growth rate,” Hawley explained.

ENCOURAGING GOOD ATTENDANCE

School districts try different tactics to encourage good attendance depending upon the age of the kids. Usually, their first step is to contact parents and make sure everyone is on the same page.

“The first step that we take is that someone communicates with the home,” Hawley explained. “Every day we call every student that’s absent.”

School officials believe if they can communicate the importance of attendance to families, it will make a difference. They also do everything they can to proactively encourage attendance instead of taking reactionary measures.

“We give out certificates for perfect attendance,” Albisu said. “You also have to have good attendance if you are going to be student of the month.”

At the high school level, administrators give out movie passes and restaurant gift cards for students who have excellent attendance records.

Officials at AttendanceWorks recommended visiting the issue every month and researching trends.

“Maybe they’re all in the same neighborhood and you need to get another school bus,” Jordan explained. “Maybe you assign a mentor or ask the kids to check in with the school counselor so they know if there is someone at school who cares.”

ATTENDANCE ENFORCEMENT

When all else fails, schools resort to warning letters and citations for students with a record of chronic absence. Warning letters let parents know that their student has missed too many days of school and that they could be responsible for a fine up to $160 if their child does not start attending school regularly.

If the warning letter fails to change the child’s attendance habits, schools issue a citation, which comes with a court date. Usually the citations are delivered to the families via the school resource officer. Truancy Court is held on the first and third Thursday of the month and the families meet with representatives from Lifeways, the department of human resources, the juvenile department, the school resource officer, principal, and Margie Mahony, Justice of the Peace and Municipal Judge.

“I run the meeting, but we have a team of people so that there’s services we can apply to any issues, if there are issues that need to be addressed,” Mahony explained. “Sometimes I have the parent and the kid get an evaluation at Lifeways.”

Mahony explained in addition to the fine, the courts can impose work crew mandates for parents and kids, and can issue arrest warrants for parents who don’t follow through with the steps set by the court.

“I’m not inclined to issue warrants, but I have done it once or twice to get their attention,” Mahony said. “It’s an inconvenience because they have to go down to the jail, even if they don’t spend the entire day there.”

Once a student appears in court, Mahony requires them to check in every Friday morning. For the younger grades, the parents have to check in but the students aren’t required to show. She also has students submit forms with teacher signatures confirming that they have, in fact, been attending class.

“I’ve had some students forge that before,” Mahony said, “so now the schools send me a lot of the kids’ attendance records each week so I can keep up with that.”

Mahony said that in her two years and three school years as the head of the Truancy Court, she’s seen all types of students in court and it’s an even split between ethnicities and the sex of the student. Primarily, she sees high school students, but she does have first and second graders in her court sometimes. She doesn’t mind seeing the younger students, because catching the issue at a young age is key to reversing the behavior.

“ I think that’s the crux of the matter,” Mahony explained. “They are missing the important stuff, like their math and their reading, when they’re missing a lot of school.”

While they have both proactive and reactive policies in place, school officials say chronic absence is a constant challenge, but the best way to remedy the issue is to curb the behavior in kindergarten or preschool.

“If we can build habits at a young age, then we don’t have the chronic offenders in the eighth grade and so forth,” Albisu said.

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