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Empty seats, barren futures


WORLD Radio - Empty seats, barren futures

Chronic absenteeism hurts schools and students

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 24th of May, 2022.

You’re listening to today’s edition of The World and Everything in It and we’re glad you are! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: chronic absenteeism.

Most students miss a few days of school now and then. But for some kids, skipping class is a regular habit. And pandemic restrictions that kept kids at home only multiplied the problem. One that a return to in-person education hasn’t solved.

WORLD’s Lauren Dunn reports.

LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Carrie Crow is a mentor coach for Youth Horizons, a Christian mentoring program in the Wichita, Kan., area.

Some of their mentoring partnerships are school-based. And Crow says sometimes mentors show up to school for a scheduled meeting, only to find out the student missed school that day.

CROW: One thing we've tried to do to avoid that is encourage the mentor to call the school just first thing in the morning and say, Hey, is my protege there today?

Crow says at least one-third of the youth her organization serves are at risk for missing school on a regular basis. And experts say the risk factors for absenteeism have only increased in the last two years.

Phyllis Jordan is the associate director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University.

JORDAN: COVID has just made a mess of attendance. It was hard to define what attendance was. Was attendance just turning on your computer? Was it turning in your assignment? Was it talking to a teacher? You had chronic absenteeism rates doubling in some communities, tripling in others. And beyond just the number of kids who were missing too much school, they were missing a lot more school.

Federal statistics on chronic absenteeism generally lag by at least two years. But consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported that as many as 22 percent of students may be chronically absent this school year. Before the pandemic, that was only 8 percent.

Robert Balfanz is the founder and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. He says chronic absences add up.

BALFANZ: That's essentially missing a month of school. And you can kind of see how missing a month of school can never really be okay.

Balfanz says it’s not surprising that low school attendance leads to academic struggles. In 2014, one study found that students with higher absentee rates scored 12-18 points lower on tests that make up the Nation’s Report Card.

And Balfanz says this doesn’t just affect high school students.

BALFANZ: And we were able to show that as early as sixth grade, that students that were not able to attend school regularly in sixth grade in high poverty environments, absent effective supports, had very low odds of graduating.

Balfanz says students typically miss school for three main reasons. One, something keeps them out of school. Maybe they have a job or help with younger siblings. Two, students avoid school for a specific reason. Some may struggle with academics, while others are bullied. Lastly, some students simply become disengaged. They don’t feel connected to their school.

Schools used to focus on truancy and often punished students who missed class. But Phyllis Jordan says teachers and administrators have moved toward focusing on the bigger picture of why a student misses school.

JORDAN: A lot of school districts are doing home visits, where they're going and talking to the families and getting a sense of what are the challenges. They’re not going to the families in a negative way, they're going and saying, Hey, what's going on. And they're finding out what is keeping kids from getting to school.

Once schools identify the problem, they can work with families to help find solutions. And sometimes, those solutions aren’t directly related to education. For example, some schools have installed a washing machine for students who need to do laundry. Some send buses out twice, so students who missed the first bus don’t have to miss the entire school day.

But more than anything, Robert Balfanz says students need personal connections.

BALFANZ: There's this body of research called ‘school connectedness,’ which basically says like, right, if you believe there's an adult that cares about you, you have a supportive peer group, you feel you're engaged in what's called a pro social activity, which means something bigger than yourself, you're actually helping others, and you feel welcome for who you are - when all those things are true, attendance is usually much higher and mental health is better and physical health is better.

And that creates a perfect opportunity for community groups, including churches, to partner with local schools.

BALFANZ: You know, in schools that have high chronic absenteeism rates, where lots of kids need those adult relationships, there's often not enough quite adults in the school to make all those relationships, right. I mean, teachers are teaching full loads. So if there's extra adults who can serve as mentors or tutors, that's important to give extra adults providing that supportive connected role to schooling. So I think that's a big role for communities.

In Wichita, Linn Bertog began mentoring through Youth Horizons several years ago, after retiring from teaching elementary grades at a public school. She started mentoring a second grader, who this year just finished her sophomore year of high school.

BERTOG: When I [would] pick her up from school and she would start her homework right in the car as we're driving somewhere, so I kept a pencil in my glove compartment for her while she's doing some kind of homework and we're talking about something. And it's still there. But we really don't do much homework, but I do encourage her because she doesn't always get it done and she knows as a teacher, my biggest pet thing that drove me crazy is kids not turning in homework.

These days, Bertog focuses less on monitoring her mentee’s homework and more on supporting and encouraging her through the challenges of growing up—and the occasional bigger school project.

Carrie Crow says that kind of investment can have a life-long payoff.

CROW: Even an hour a week can go a long ways, you know, for a child.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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