February 28th, 2013

Tackling Chronic Absenteeism Benefits Children of Color, Low-Income Students

In a White House auditorium on Tuesday, Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang was recognized as a “Champion of Change” along with nine other advocates and educators for their work with African-American students.

Beyond the honor, the ceremony provided an opportunity to mingle with some fantastic people doing great work across the country: Kyle Bacon in Washington, D.C., Esther Bush in Pittsburgh, Haben Girma at Harvard, Michael Graham in North Carolina, Phillip Jackson in Chicago, Becky James-Hatter in St. Louis, Erin Jones in the Seattle area and Joyce Parker in Mississippi Delta. Also on the list was Johns Hopkins University researcher Bob Balfanz, another expert on chronic absence, as well as high school dropout.

The connection between school attendance and African-American community is clear. In its recently published issue brief on early school attendance, the Race Matters Institute spotlights the racial disparities in chronic absenteeism among children of color, disparities that start in the early grades and persist through the school years.

“As we seek to raise the academic success rate for all children, we must take specific steps to ensure that racial gaps in chronic early absenteeism are close, since more than half of the country’s child population will be non-white by 2023,” according to the issue brief. “Now more than ever before, our shared fate as a nation depends on closing these racial gaps.”

At Attendance Works, we know that good attendance is essential to student achievement and graduation. Simply put, children must be in school to thrive academically. But too often, students, parents and schools don’t realize how quickly absences – excused or unexcused – can leave children and youth falling behind. Chronic absence – missing 10 percent of the school year, or just 2-3 days each month – predicts lower third-grade reading proficiency, course failure and eventual dropout.

The impact hits low-income students and children of color particularly hard, especially if they don’t have the resources to make up for lost time in the classroom and are more likely to face systemic barriers to getting to school – such as unreliable transportation or conflicting parent work schedules.

Schools and districts must do more to track, calculate and share the data on how many students are chronically absent so that we can deliver the right interventions to the right students.

To help illustrate this point, the Race Matters Institute’s brief points to one school system – the Oakland Unified School District – that is reducing the achievement gap by focusing on chronic absence and suspension rates.

An analysis of district data showed the deep disparities: 23 percent of African-American students were chronically absent in elementary school compared to 6.7 percent of white students during the 2009-10 school year. By high school, the rate for white student climbed to 9.6 percent while the rate for African-American students was at 22 percent.

In response to data showing deep racial disparities – in particular, a higher level of chronic absenteeism among black students, starting in elementary school – Oakland knew it needed to focus on reducing absenteeism rates starting as early as kindergarten to help reduce racial inequities in academic achievement.

Among its efforts, Oakland is tracking attendance data carefully, engaging community partners to work with families and students to overcome barriers to attendance (such as unstable housing and unreliable transportation), and promoting alternatives to suspensions.

“Oakland Unified’s efforts to reduce chronic absence and suspension rates will give these students a more equitable chance to succeed in school and graduate,” according to the brief.

Click here to read more about Oakland’s initiative and for the full issue brief.

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