When students start missing too much school in Baltimore, their parents are likely to receive a phone call or a home visit to find out what’s going on.  But what about kids in foster care?

Under a unique data sharing agreement, Baltimore’s child welfare workers now have access to attendance data for the children they are monitoring.  They know when these students have missed 10 percent of the school days, which is when they are chronically absent.  And they know when they are skipping school.

What’s more, Baltimore social workers are using chronic absence data to identify families who may need additional support.  A child’s chronic absenteeism, especially in the early grades, can signal family chaos — frequent moves, homelessness, transportation issues, or physical and mental health problems.

Rather than waiting for a crisis, social workers can use this early warning sign to approach the family and offer support.  Using the data, Baltimore is identifying 700 children a month whose families could use support from Family Preservation workers.

“The front line of the human service system often lies outside the human service system,” says Lynn Mumma of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. “In this case, it’s in the schools.”

The reality is, the children who come in contact with the child welfare system are often at high risk for attendance problems.  Children moved out of their homes to placement with relatives or foster care are particularly vulnerable, with a study in New York City showing that 57 percent changed schools.  They’re also more likely to use illicit drugs.  Disabled students also have high rates of absenteeism.

For social workers, schoolwide aggregate attendance is irrelevant.  They need to know how many days individual students have missed, and they need to know what proportion of school days that represents.  Essentially, they want to know two things:  are the students they’re monitoring in foster care attending regularly?  And are there chronically absent students whom they aren’t in contact with, but might need their support?

As we’ve said before, most schools have this data.  But they don’t always calculate the numbers like that or have it readily accessible for social workers or even teachers to look at.  That’s where Baltimore is different:

  • Principals receive this chronic absence data on a weekly data dashboard; some hold regular meetings to discuss systemic changes or individual steps that can bring students back to school.
  • The school district shares the data with the city social services department and invites child welfare workers to regular attendance meetings.
  • Social workers conducted home visits over the summer to 315 students in kindergarten through second grade who had been severely chronically absent the year before — 20 percent or more of missed school days. In about a third of the cases, the children had asthma but no plan for managing it.
  • Social workers coordinate with attendance monitors and school support teams to respond to families. School teams can refer chronically absent students to Family Preservation workers if they’ve identified an issue that can be addressed through community support.

Good attendance effectively becomes everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s goal.

Revised September 2011