Parents, a quick quiz:
How many school days would your child have to miss during a nine-week grading period to be considered “chronically absent”?
Ten? Twelve? Fifteen?
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Armed with a growing collection of data that shows test scores drop as absences rise, Wichita schools have redefined “chronic absenteeism” and are launching new strategies to make sure kids get to school and stay through the final bell.
“Every day’s lesson builds upon the previous day. So when you miss a half-day or even an hour, you’re missing a huge chunk of information,” said Lisa Lutz, executive director of innovation and evaluation for the Wichita school district.
Students are considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of school time. That’s about four days per nine-week grading period, or six-and-a-half days so far this school year.
Unlike truancy, which relates to unexcused absences, chronic absenteeism includes parent-excused absences such as those for dental appointments, family commitments and vacations. It does not include in-school suspensions or missed class time for school-sponsored activities.
“We know there are only certain things within our control,” Lutz said. “So we’re talking about reaching out to the community to help get this message out there.”
As of last week, nearly 10 percent of Wichita students were considered chronically absent. That percentage goes up as students advance through the system: 6.7 percent of elementary school students, 11 percent of middle-schoolers and nearly 14 percent of high school students.
At several schools the rate is even higher. Nearly one-fifth of students enrolled at Hamilton Middle School, for instance, have missed at least 10 percent of school time this year.
“When you look at the numbers, you have to ask yourself, is this acceptable?” Lutz said. “And if it’s not, what can we do?”
Principals are employing several strategies, including buying alarm clocks for families and even programming their school’s ParentLink phone system to send early-morning wake-up calls to certain households.
“I will do anything I need to do to get students here,” said Judy Wright, principal at Clark Elementary School. “I’ve gone to pick students up if their parent’s car breaks down.”
When she took over as principal of the east Wichita school four years ago, attendance was “horrible,” Wright said.
About one-fourth of students were absent or tardy on a regular basis. Parents would let children stay home from school or sign them out early “for just about any reason,” she said, including hair appointments.
“The school was in such bad shape. The kids didn’t want to be there, the parents didn’t want to be there. (Missing school) was no big deal.”
Shortly into her first year at Clark, Wright invited families to a cookout at the school and explained the importance of regular attendance. A first-grader who gets to school 30 minutes late misses nearly half of his reading lesson, she told them. A student who leaves at 2:30 p.m. could miss an entire writing lesson.
“Once we put it to parents like that, you could hear the gasps,” Wright said. “It was a real a-ha moment.”
At a recent board meeting, Superintendent John Allison said chronic absenteeism is not limited to any racial, geographic or socioeconomic group.
And “it’s not just illnesses,” he said. “We have parents who, if there’s a three-day weekend, they take four. Or, ‘My child went to see the new Harry Potter movie last night,’ so they’re out of school that next day.
“We have to help inform parents that absenteeism, no matter the reason, has an impact on student performance.”
Wright, the Clark principal, said absences and tardies are not a serious problem at the school anymore. Teachers continually encourage students to attend school. If a student is absent, they send a postcard reminder home.
That’s one reason Clark made adequate yearly progress on state assessment tests last year, Wright said.
“We’re constantly looking for ways to make our families feel welcome. We want them in school, because that makes all the difference.”