‘Relentless pursuit:’ understanding and combating chronic absenteeism

Published 12:10 am Sunday, November 19, 2017

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — South Rowan High School Principal Kelly Withers still remembers the day a student came into her office, exuberant and excited.

It was the same student who, months before, had stopped coming to school in the second semester of his senior year. The same student whose parents the staff called, who teachers pleaded with when they saw him on campus dropping off friends. It was the same student whose work number Withers kept on a post-it-note on her phone — a number she called day after day, pleading with him to return.

Eventually, he did. With a lot of work, dedication, and creative scheduling, he made up all his credits. He passed.

And when he burst into Wither’s office there was only one question on his mind.

“Now how do I get a cap and gown?” he asked.

Withers said the question made her pause. He hadn’t ordered one before? She asked.

“I didn’t ever think I would graduate,” he told her. “I didn’t think I would make it this far.”

It’s an answer that’s stayed with her through the years, as Withers and other principals and educators work to combat tardiness and chronic absenteeism.

“It grows every year. It’s a battle that we fight every year.” Withers said.

According to district policy, students can miss up to eight days of school a semester or 16 for the year. After that, their case is reviewed by a committee, which recommends actions to the principal. Students who frequently miss school due to documented chronic illness are exempt from the policy.

But intervention has to start before that final missed day, local educators said, and situations like the one Withers experienced start much earlier than a student’s senior year of high school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a student’s decision to drop out of high school is closely linked to trends of absenteeism throughout their school career — and it’s a pattern that can stretch all the way back to the beginning.

“These habits start in kindergarten,” Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said.

While many students miss days due to an illness, family crisis or other serious situation, some children fall into the habit of simply not coming to school, or of coming to school late. But even children who miss school with excused absences or due to circumstances outside of their control can suffer if they’re out of the classroom too often.

“We can feed them, we can teach them, we can even provide them school uniforms; but having them present and well rested are the two things that are extremely important for student success at school the next day,” Moody said.

And a student who is chronically absent or tardy in kindergarten is likely to perform poorly in first grade, the National Center for Education Statistics said. The effect snowballs all the way to high school, when many students choose to throw in the towel and drop out.

“They feel like it’s a short-term win,” Withers said of students who leave high school. “…But often times it’s a long-term loss.”

According to the center, lack of a high school diploma is linked to lower paying jobs and fewer job opportunities, and can have catastrophic consequences on a child’s future. And it’s a future that’s mapped out early — long before most children even think about high school, college or a career.

“Beginning in kindergarten they start closing doors for themselves,” Moody said.

In October, Rowan-Salisbury Schools had 93 percent of enrolled students attend class. But when it comes to absenteeism, Rockwell Elementary Principal Jennifer Warden said, numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Rockwell Elementary School had a 95 percent attendance rate for October, but Warden said that a closer look at data reveals a different picture. For Warden, chronic absenteeism is higher than she’s ever seen in her more than 10 years as an educator — particularly among kindergarten students.

“(Attendance is) as important to me as instruction right now,” she said.

Not only are students missing days, but they’re coming in late to class — which can have just as detrimental an effect.

“Tardiness is as big a problem as being out,” Moody said.

A student who is late to class 15 minutes each day misses more than an hour of instruction a week, Warden said.

And at elementary schools like Rockwell, the lessons happening first thing in the morning are often intervention-style activities for students who need more help or are the class’s literacy block.

“If they miss literacy, we only get 185 times a year to teach that block,” Moody said.

And making up any subject can cause a student to fall further and further behind.

“You have to take from one area to make up for another area and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” Warden said.

Not only does being late to or missing class impact a child’s learning, but it can have a real effect on their health. When a child comes in late, they’re placed into a routine and flow of learning that has already begun — they may begin to feel lost, upset or anxious. If it happens often enough, Warden said, that anxiety may extend to the idea of coming to school, period.

“Students have this physical reaction to anxiety,” she said.

They may begin to develop headaches or stomachaches in the morning before school starts — reactions that aren’t a student pretending to be sick, but are very real symptoms rooted in anxiety.

Sometimes, students are anxious about coming to school. Sometimes, they simply don’t want to get out of bed, or are ill. In the eastern part of the county, Warden says she sees a lot of students chronically absent from school due to situations of poverty.

“I think there’s a direct correlation between those two things,” she said.

Moody agreed.

“Absentee comes in all different forms,” she said. “We have students who are homeless. Who move from site to site, from hotel to hotel. … The signs and symptoms of poverty make coming to school on time every day more difficult for those families.”

Students of poverty may have difficulty making it to school on time because their parent might work a job with odd hours, or because families are more worried about keeping the electricity on and putting food on the table. In those situations, Warden said, “attendance at school sometimes takes the back burner.”

But those are exactly the students who need to be in school the most, Moody said, as studies have shown that students from less affluent families are more likely to start school behind and have difficulty catching up.

“Their attendance at school is the most critical. …Catch-up when you’re already behind is already difficult,” Moody said. “…The only hope that they have for a different generation is to come to school and get an education. We are the greatest hope. …We can change a student’s future based on their attendance in school.”

At South Rowan High School, Withers said that often students miss school because they have to work to support themselves or their families.

“They’re pulled in a lot of different directions and often school is not the direction they choose,” she said.

Her job as a principal, and as an educator, is to hammer home the importance of finishing high school and earning a diploma. She calls it a “relentless pursuit.”
When a student misses a day of school, Warden and Withers say a call is immediately placed to the home. If more days are missed, a teacher or principal may pay the family a visit at home.

“We want parents to know that we care about their kids and we miss them when they miss instruction,” Warden said.

Once a student has passed the cap, things get more involved. The district attendance committee can recommend that a student receive no credit for a course, that they not be promoted to the next grade, that they attend night school, take course remediation or come up with some other strategy. The decision, though, lies with the principal.

At South Rowan, Withers works with students to come up with modified schedules, if needed, or to ensure that staff are available before school starts, as well as after.

“We have to come at it in a different way and be flexible in our options,” she said.

Warden works to show parents exactly how much instructional time a student is missing and to point out trends in absenteeism they may be unaware of.

But the most effective way to bring a child back to school is, by far, building relationships with them.

“I think a lot of it starts before they’re absent. It starts with having a fun and engaging classroom,” Jessica Deal, a fourth grade teacher at Rockwell Elementary, said.

In her eight years of teaching, Deal said her class has never had much of a problem with absenteeism — but that’s because she works hard to make it a fun, safe environment for her students.

Instead of diving right into lessons, Deal spends the first week or so of school getting to know her students. She learns their hobbies and interests, assigns each student a nickname and tries to make it to their sporting events.

“Those are huge things,” she said. “They don’t sound like a lot, but they are. …If you don’t have that relationship with them then they don’t want to learn from you.”

And if a student is out, Deal talks to them about it.

“The first thing I do is greet them. …I make it a point to know that I missed them, that I noticed they weren’t there,” she said.

South Rowan marketing and communications teacher Tammy Tutterow said that she tries to show students that lessons can benefit them outside of school.

“Sometimes a student can be slow to realize the value in their education,” she said.

And sometimes, Tutterow said, it’s important for teachers to realize that they may not be able to reach a student — but to help find someone who can.

Keeping kids in school is a community responsibility, as well, educators said.

Withers is working on building partnerships with local businesses so that students won’t have to choose between work and school — but she would like to see the rest of the community involved, as well.

“The community has to help us build a vision for kids that this is important, finishing is important,” she said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.