When Woody Allen famously quipped that “80 percent of success is showing up,” more than a kernel of truth popped out. Because regular school attendance is tied directly to high school graduation rates, youth workers have both a role in, and a responsibility for, supporting young people on this part of their journey toward productive adulthood.
New research is emerging almost daily about the issue of chronic absence, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year. This metric entered the national lexicon about five years ago through the good work of Ralph Smith at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Hedy Chang of Attendance Works. Analysis of chronic absence uncovered a serious problem in schools and districts across the country — one often hidden by the more common measure of average daily attendance. For example, data from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium indicates that schools with average daily attendance rates as high as 94 percent still had as many as 15 percent of their students missing 20 days or more of instruction each year. This is unacceptable, given what we now know about the importance of regular school attendance across the developmental continuum:
• students who are chronically absent from kindergarten and first grade are much less likely than regular attendees to achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade (a benchmark that is tied directly to later school success).
• three out of four students who are chronically absent in sixth grade never graduate from high school.
• ninth grade attendance is a more accurate predictor of high school graduation than eighth grade test scores.
• many parents do not know that early school attendance predicts later school success.
• chronic absence in the elementary grades is often caused by health or family problems.
For some youth organizations, school attendance may seem to be someone else’s headache, but such thinking is actually part of the problem. Youth workers have great potential to be — and in many cases are — part of the solution. Across the country, youth organizations are finding innovative ways to partner with schools to address this growing crisis.
For example, when a 2008 study conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs revealed that more than 90,000 of that city’s elementary school children had missed a month or more of school during the 2007-2008 academic year, The Children’s Aid Society became a partner in the Every Student Every Day initiative sponsored by the New York City Mayor’s Office. This effort, now in its third year, has several components: (1) identifying students who show patterns of chronic absence and linking them to needed supports, including Success Mentors from community agencies as well as school staff; (2) employing school-wide strategies that promote good attendance; (3) conducting weekly attendance meetings at which a team of school and community partners create action plans for students in need of intervention; and (4) reaching out to families of chronically absent students. The initiative also sponsors a city-wide public awareness campaign featuring public service announcements on television, radio, subways and buses that call attention to the importance of regular school attendance.
In other cities, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs and other youth agencies have teamed up with local schools to make calls and home visits to absent students; have provided incentives for good attendance; and have made school-day attendance a prerequisite for participation in after-school enrichment programs. Truancy Intervention Project, in Atlanta, is a model program linking volunteers lawyers with families to reduce truancy. Youth programs across the country can apply similar innovative approaches to make a dent in this national crisis.
The good news about chronic absence is how amenable the problem is to targeted interventions. In New York City, after only one year of implementation, the Every Student Every Day initiative reported that chronically absent students who were paired with Success Mentors gained, in the aggregate, more than 7,000 days of attendance. Similarly, the Grand Rapids Public Schools saw their rates of chronic absence decline dramatically once schools and community agencies agreed to work together to address the issue.
Teachers and administrators at more and more schools are realizing they can’t solve the attendance challenge on their own. So how should youth organizations respond? Well, let’s try showing up — and figuring out how we can apply our skills, knowledge, relationships and influence to address this serious national crisis.
Jane Quinn is the director of the National Center for Community Schools