OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | KATHY POWERS: A silent crisis

Chronic absentees are missing out

"What did I miss?" asked Talia, one of my fifth-grade students. What started as two or three absences a month had escalated into two or three a week. When Talia returned, she was often too busy trying to make sense of her missing work to focus on the current lesson.

When I asked her why she was absent, Talia's reasons ranged from "I missed the bus and there was no one to take me," to "My brother was sick so Mom kept all of us home for the week."

Talia is a conscientious student, and I could tell she was embarrassed to have to ask again about what she's missed.

Talia is among a growing number of chronically absent students who miss at least 10 percent of their school days. Chronic student absences have nearly doubled in recent years. In my district, attendance has yet to bounce back to pre-covid numbers, with an average of 384 students chronically absent in 2019-2020, 632 in 2021-2022, and 591 in 2022-2023. Their reasons for absenteeism range from being anxious about upcoming tests to extended weekend trips.

Regardless of the reason, chronically absent students like Talia have a greater risk of falling behind and not graduating from high school, which in turn has a drastic effect on their future lives and careers.

Students miss so much more than assignments when they are chronically absent. When Talia asks, "What did I miss?" it interrupts the flow of learning for all my students because of the time I must take to summarize a lesson for her.

On Monday, Talia missed the essential question at the start of our new literacy unit: "What makes something mysterious, and what makes people want to solve mysteries?" The class discussion that followed was rich with student questions and ranged from finding evidence in a crime scene to finding evidence in a text. In the middle of the discussion, one of the students told a joke, "My last teacher said I was unnecessarily mysterious, or did she?" and it spiced up the engagement of the whole class. It deepened our connections as a classroom community and my students' understanding of mysteries in a way that cannot be captured in a short verbal summary.

Students still make references to that joke, but Talia does not get it. She can make up her work, but she can never make up the added value of the in-person learning she missed.

The value of consistent, in-person attendance is immeasurable. There are several solutions to try to reduce chronic absenteeism and ensure that students like Talia are back in our classrooms.

Use technology to raise awareness. We should link the school's attendance system to a communication app to raise parent awareness of how often their child is absent. This way, Talia's parents can view a running tally of her absences every time they log in to the app, and I can gather attendance data to share with them at conferences twice a year. The app would be even more impactful if it could send an easily accessible notification. Just having a reminder, with no consequences attached, may be enough to improve attendance for students like Talia.

Increase resources for basic needs. For students like Talia who are from low socioeconomic households, schools like mine can offer more support for basic needs as incentives to attend more regularly, including free school meals for all public school students. Schools can also remove barriers that might be keeping students from coming to school by providing clean clothes and hygiene products. To help families with transportation issues, schools could have parents set an alternative transportation plan in case their child misses the bus, including identifying another adult who could get them to school.

Enhance transparency through data collection. Finally, the Arkansas Education Department could add a "chronic absentee" indicator on the state standardized test, similarly to the migrant status, to collect data and compare test scores of students who are chronically absent with those who attend school more regularly to develop a more targeted attendance approach.

If we implement measures to encourage regular attendance, chronically absent students will have a higher chance of success, I will be able to instruct more efficiently, and we will have a thriving classroom community and culture if all our students are consistently there.

We need to do all we can to ensure that students like Talia do not miss out on a rich educational experience.

Kathy Powers teaches reading and language arts to fifth-grade students at Carl Stuart Middle School in Conway. She is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.

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