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Missing School and the Risk of Falling Behind: Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades (Part 1)
Educators, policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic region and across the country acknowledge the need to reduce chronic student absenteeism (typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year). Most states include chronic absenteeism as an indicator of school performance under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), reflecting a growing recognition of its importance. Simply put, missing a substantial amount of school puts students at risk of falling behind. Schools cannot effectively educate students who are chronically absent.
What contributes to chronic absenteeism? Student-, family-, school-, or community-specific reasons can keep students away from school. For example, a student might frequently miss school because of a chronic health problem such as asthma, a parent with an unpredictable work schedule, or family homelessness. Families might visit relatives outside the United States for holidays and stay well beyond the period of the school break. Schools might have to address poor teacher–family relationships, children who have difficulties with their classmates, and students whose homes are relatively far from school. Unsafe neighborhoods and a lack of social and educational support services can exacerbate these problems.
Chronic absenteeism is particularly high for students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten compared with students in other elementary grades and middle school—across the country and in the mid-Atlantic region. Students who are chronically absent in early grades are at risk of not establishing a foundation for learning—for example, not reading on grade level—and setting out on a course that can lead to grade repetition, behavioral problems, and eventual dropout. A recent report revealed that 12 percent of kindergarten students in New Jersey were chronically absent in the 2014–2015 school year.
Momentum is building to tackle chronic absenteeism head on. Members of the REL Mid-Atlantic’s alliance on Strengthening the Early Education Continuum have made the issue a top priority. In a recent meeting of the alliance, members reported that they have (1) assessed the extent of chronic absenteeism in the early grades, (2) spoken with parents of chronically absent students to better understand the reasons for absences, and (3) measured the association between chronic absence and later achievement.
Addressing chronic absenteeism for our youngest students requires a better understanding of the issue’s complexity and identifying solutions that help students get to school regularly. First, as our states have done, education leaders must examine attendance records to assess the level of chronic absenteeism in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Second, states can guide districts on evidence-based practices, and districts can help schools select and implement practices to combat chronic absenteeism. Examples of promising strategies include making home visits to families of chronically absent students, providing nurse home visits to children with asthma, and providing school buses to transport young students to school. A randomized controlled study from the REL Mid-Atlantic found that sending a postcard in the fall urging guardians to improve their students’ attendance reduced absences over the three months of the study. Finally, school leaders should monitor the implementation of strategies and the levels of attendance and chronic absenteeism over time to assess whether attendance improves.
Recognizing the problem of chronic absenteeism in the early grades is only the first step. The REL Mid-Atlantic is working with stakeholders in our region to identify evidence-based and promising solutions and to assess how they are working and share the results of our work broadly to make sure our nation’s youngest children attend school and receive the education to which they are entitled.
Cross-posted from the REL Mid-Atlantic website.