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Education's new problem: Growing absenteeism

Posted September 19

— Students used to get awards at school for having perfect attendance. But a national trend has found it's getting more difficult to find students who attend school every day.

New data reported by the U.S. Department of Education shows that more than 6 million students— 13 percent of all students in public schools —missed at least 15 days of school during the 2013-2014 school year.

Local school departments haven't been spared the upswing in absenteeism.

In Mansfield, for example, officials report that at least 100 high school students were out 10 days or more last year.

The school committee recently adopted goals making reducing the number of missed days a priority.

Numbers were not immediately available for other school districts.

"It's a growing problem," said Mansfield Superintendent Zeff Gianetti, who added that absenteeism was the theme of a major superintendent's conference he attended over the summer. "But the root causes aren't as easy to identify as you might think."

Gianetti said a number of factors are contributing to increased absenteeism, from additional pressure on students to succeed on standardized tests to social and emotional problems.

North Attleboro's schools have also seen an increase in repeated absences said Julieann Hoell, the school district's special needs director.

"It used to be a high school problem, but now we're seeing it down to the elementary level," Hoell said. Skipping school, she said, can stem from a variety of causes.

"There's a very strong correlation between chronic absenteeism and mental health diagnoses," Hoell said.

But there are other reasons, too, such as anxiety and students' fixation on electronic games causing them to stay up late and making it impossible to get up on time for the school bus in the morning, she said.

So concerned are school leaders about absences that last year the schools introduced a program called "Pathways" to coax long-term absentees back to class.

A separate classroom was established for a handful of students at the former Allen Avenue School.

This June, two Pathways students completed their high school education and were awarded diplomas, Hoell said. The school district continues to work with families of absentees to try to get them back in school.

Growing absenteeism threatens to undermine academic performance in schools across the country, experts say.

"Chronic absenteeism is a national problem," said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. "Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child's education. Missing school leads to low academic achievement and triggers drop outs. Millions of young people are missing opportunities in post-secondary education, good careers and a chance to experience the American dream."

Many of the findings in the Education Department analysis are disturbing.

The report indicates that chronic absenteeism is prevalent in all parts of the county and a problem among students of all races.

Nationally, high school students are absent the most— almost 20 percent —followed by middle school at 12 percent, and elementary school students at 10 percent.

Roughly 13 percent of both males and females are chronically absent.

Some schools have resorted to innovative methods to reduce absentees.

In Attleboro, where high school absenteeism was running high five years ago, the school department now takes away credits from students who missed a specified number of days. Mansfield, Norton and other school districts have similar practices.

Attleboro students who were repeatedly absent got to keep their grades but lost credits they needed to accumulate for graduation. Absentees were given an opportunity to earn back their credits if they made up missed assignments and resumed regular attendance.

"That turned out to be a hugely effective strategy," said Superintendent David Sawyer, who noted the new policy led to a marked reduction in absenteeism.

The high school still has a small number of students who are absent for long periods, he said, but, what he called "a casual" attitude toward attendance that had existed among some students has been virtually wiped out.

The Obama Administration, in an effort to address the growing problem, launched "Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism" last fall in response to recommendations put forth by the president's "My Brother's Keeper Taskforce."

King released the new national data and a companion website at the "Every Student, Every Day National Conference" in June, the first of its kind focusing on chronic absenteeism.

The new, national chronic absenteeism data are part of the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection, a comprehensive look at conditions within more than 99,500 public schools across the country, or 99.5 percent of all public schools. The information collected included data on all students from elementary, middle, and high school, including students of color, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency.

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