The opening days of school conjure up images of backpacks stuffed with notebooks and unsharpened pencils, bulletin boards freshly decorated by teachers, and students showing off new clothes to old friends.
But even in these early days of the new school year, some students already are heading toward academic trouble: They’re missing too many days of school. Across the country, as many as 7.5 million students miss nearly a month of school every year—absences that can correlate with poor performance at every grade level.
This trend starts as early as kindergarten and continues through high school, contributing to achievement gaps and ultimately to dropout rates.
This year, our United Way is recognizing September as Attendance Awareness Month, part of a nationwide movement intended to convey the message that every school day counts.
We can’t afford to think of absenteeism as simply an administrative matter. Good attendance is central to student achievement and our broader efforts to improve schools. All of our investments in curriculum and instruction won’t amount to much if students aren’t showing up to benefit from them.
Problems with absenteeism start surprisingly early: National research shows that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students are chronically absent, meaning that they miss 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days of instruction, because of excused and unexcused absences.
Chronic absence can have consequences throughout a child’s academic career, especially for those students living in poverty, who need school the most and are sometimes getting the least. Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, and students who don’t read well by that critical juncture are more likely to struggle in school. They are also more likely to be chronically absent in later years, since they never developed good attendance habits.
By middle school, chronic absence becomes one of the leading indicators that a child will drop out of high school. By ninth grade, it’s a better indicator than how well a student did on eighth grade tests.
Chronic absence isn’t just about truancy or willfully skipping school. Instead, children stay home because of chronic illness, unreliable transportation, housing issues, bullying or simply because their parents don’t understand how quickly absences add up—and affect school performance.
After all, 18 days is only two days a month in a typical school year. This is true whether absences are excused or unexcused, whether they come consecutively or sporadically throughout the school year.
So how do we turn this around?
A key step will be letting families know about the critical role they play in getting children to school on time every day. It’s up to parents to build a habit of good attendance, enforce bedtimes and other routines and avoid vacations while school is in session. Teachers will reinforce these messages and, when they can, offer fun incentives for those students who show the best attendance or most improvement. Businesses, faith leaders and community volunteers can also convey this message.
The value of a mentor for our youth in regards to attendance and academic success is inestimable. Because of this, we fund programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Comprehensive Mentoring that provides at-risk children with a positive and consistent one-to-one volunteer mentor that works with the child to promote healthy development and functioning. Through research, we know that children who meet with their mentor regularly are 52% less likely to miss a day of school.
One Hope United’s Foster Grandparent Program is another program that utilizes adults in a mentor-like fashion. Adults who are 55 and older provide academic and social support to students who are determined to be in need of support in the classroom during the regular school day. Foster Grandparents aid students with additional instruction time that may get lost, as well as assist students with behavioral issues so that they can stay in the classroom and not miss out on instruction.
Think about what you can do within your own family and your own neighborhood to help get more kids to school. And join us in our effort to make every day count.