Juvenile court Judge Dwayne Woodruff sees the worst of the problem. “By the time kids get to me they’ve missed 50, 60, 80 days of school,” he says. It’s a common thread running through the Allegheny County cases over which he presides, regardless of whether the student is delinquent or in need of protective custody due to abuse or neglect.
Unfortunately, it’s a problem affecting a population far larger than students passing through Juvenile Court. Chronic absenteeism—missing at least 10 percent of the school year for any reason— is an issue in every school district in southwestern Pennsylvania, the state and the nation. And it often has serious consequences. Studies and local data suggest that student performance drops sharply when students miss 18 or more days of school, dimming their future prospects, particularly their chances of going to college.
“What we’re finding based on our research is if kids want to pursue a year or two of college they need to be attending 95 percent of the time. They should be missing no school at all,” says Peter Lavorini, project manager of career and college readiness for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The good news is chronic absenteeism has become an issue of community concern in Allegheny County, where school attendance is being addressed in ways ranging from long standing truancy prevention programs to emerging strategies involving school districts, the courts, human services providers and philanthropic organizations.
A Hidden Population
Schools in Pennsylvania and most other states are not required to track chronic absenteeism, and most don’t. As a result, a comprehensive picture of chronic absenteeism remains elusive.
Traditionally, attendance has been measured in two ways: average daily attendance and truancy; neither adequately identifies students who are chronically absent, which studies suggest is a better measure of risk.
Average daily attendance, which Pennsylvania schools must report, is the total days of attendance for all students in the school divided by the number of days in the school year. Such an average masks individual attendance and doesn’t reveal how many students miss a significant number of days for any reason.
Truancy is based only on unexcused absences; a student with three is considered a truant in Pennsylvania.
The scope of the absenteeism problem in a large, urban school district is evident in an attendance analysis of the Pittsburgh Public Schools performed by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, which maintains a data warehouse that contains human services data, court records and, most recently, a growing body of school-related information. It found that 23 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of the 2011-2012 school year—the same year the district was credited with 91 percent average daily attendance on its Pennsylvania Department of Education report card.
The data also show why attendance is such a concern for the Department of Human Services: 58 percent of students who missed at least 20 percent of the school year are in the human services system. And those involved in public welfare, mental health services and child welfare were the most likely to miss at least 10 percent of school days.
School attendance and neighborhood patterns are uneven. Dense clusters of chronically absent students exist in Crafton Heights, the Hill District, Homewood and Mount Oliver. Many of the absenteeism hot spots are neighborhoods with public housing.
But it’s not necessarily where students live or demographic factors such as poverty that matter most, says Lavorini. “What seems to be more of a factor is the school itself. So, you’d look at [Faison Elementary in Homewood] and you’d imagine their chronic absentee rate would be much higher than it is. But they have made a very concerted effort to work with Homewood Children’s Village, they have strong teacher leadership teams, and the principal there has really taken this on. They have a much lower chronic absentee rate than some of the schools that look very similar.”
Students miss many days of school for a variety of reasons, including issues outside of school: illness, homelessness, being in the child welfare system, domestic violence exposure and caring for a younger sibling. In school, bullying and unmet needs for special education or other support affect attendance. But with chronically absent kids, it’s usually a combination of factors.
“We wish it was just one issue—that there’s a kid and he’s not going to school because of transportation and that’s it,” says Judge Woodruff. “But with the majority of these kids there’s three or four different reasons.”
Students in the human services system miss school for a variety of often overlapping reasons, including poverty, being in the child welfare system, changing schools, juvenile justice involvement and being too old for a grade, according to human services analysts. “We look at a number of factors, but we’re really trying to group them to identify students most at-risk for chronic absenteeism and to inform interventions. For instance, is it students living in poverty who’ve changed schools during the academic year, that are most likely to be chronically absent?” says Emily Kulick, manager of external partnerships in the Department of Human Services Division of Analysis, Research and Evaluation.
In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, chronically absent students are much less likely to have grade point averages of 2.5 or higher than more regularly attending students. And the more days missed, the wider the achievement gap. Of students who missed at least 20 percent of the school year, only 19 percent had a GPA of 2.5 or better. Conversely, of students who missed 5 percent or less of the year, three quarters achieved a GPA of 2.5 or better.
Among the more troubling findings is the link between absenteeism and violence. High rates of absenteeism exist in city neighborhoods with some of the highest numbers of homicides and shootings. From 2003-2011, about 15 percent of homicide victims aged 25 and younger had at some point attended city public schools. Their average absenteeism rates were more than twice as high as those of other high school students.
Attendance is particularly important to the futures of the youngest students. A University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study reports that preschool students who attend regularly are significantly better prepared for kindergarten and ultimately have better attendance as they get older.
“From what we know, the strongest predictor of chronic absence for the current year is chronic absence from the prior year. It makes sense that those habits tend to continue,” says Ken Smythe-Leistico, assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, which several years ago introduced the Ready Freddy Program to improve kindergarten enrollment and attendance in city public schools. “What we try to do is start off on the best habit possible at the very beginning. We targeted the kindergarten year because we know that kids that are chronically absent in kindergarten are on a path.”
In the city public schools, fewer than half of kindergarten students who miss at least 10 percent of the school year earn scores of proficient or higher on their third-grade Pennsylvania System of State Assessment reading test. By comparison, 74 percent of students who attend kindergarten more regularly earn proficient or better scores, the Department of Human Services analysis suggests.
New Strategies Emerge
As awareness of such outcomes has increased, so too have strategies to reduce absenteeism, including several Allegheny County partnerships. The collaborations include a workgroup within the Children’s Roundtable Initiative to address truancy and a new attendance campaign, Be There, launched last year by the United Way of Allegheny County.
Another is Focus on Attendance, a pilot program for reducing absenteeism in King PreK-8 and Manchester PreK-8, two city public schools where the rates of students receiving human services and chronic absenteeism are among the district’s highest. With Department of Human Services staff, the program monitors attendance, identifies issues, reinforces the importance of attendance with parents, and arranges support services for students and families, if needed, when a troubling attendance pattern is detected.
In some cases, solutions can be as simple as helping families establish “morning and night accountability schedules,” including setting their alarms or cell phones to wake up in time for school, and other steps, such as laying out school clothes at night and knowing how long it takes for them to walk to school, says Carlena Jenkins, the program’s school outreach specialist.
With so many students involved with human services, improving communication between the school and human services staff working with students is important in resolving absenteeism issues.
“Number one is to know if our kids are missing as early as the absences start happening,” says Samantha Murphy, Department of Human Services educational liaison. “Number two, to know exactly who to talk to. One difficult thing for school staff is that they don’t know which services their kids and families are involved with. Some of the confusion with child-serving workers (probation, child welfare) is they don’t know who to connect with within the school about a child. If it’s a discipline issue, is it the principal? If it’s a bullying issue, is it a counselor?”
An evaluation of the Focus on Attendance program’s first year found that nearly half of the students improved attendance by an average of 10 percent. And students who improved their attendance saw their GPAs rise by an average of one-half point.
But finding a solution to an issue as broad in scope and complex as chronic absenteeism will require the commitment of more than the schools, says Judge Woodruff. “We need a village response. We need everyone—business owners, more ‘block watchers.’ They see a kid during school time, they need to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, your kid’s not in school today. How come?’”