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Apodaca: The nation’s grade schools face one problem above all others

Chronic absenteeism is chronically high and is a bigger issue than others at public schools.
Chronic absenteeism is chronically high and is a bigger issue than others at public schools, writes Daily Pilot columnist Patrice Apodaca.
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When it comes to public schools there’s never a shortage of controversy. In the past few years alone they’ve been attacked for all kinds of reasons — some imagined or at least overblown — that a vocal minority of people get very worked up about. CRT, vaccine requirements, transgenderism and, of course, books are a few targets that spring to mind.

Unfortunately, all that noise tends to drown out awareness of the real problems facing schools. Problems like chronic absenteeism.

Since schools ended pandemic restrictions and fully reopened, chronic absenteeism has remained stubbornly high. Nationwide, the rate of chronic absenteeism stood at about 30% in the 2021-22 school year, edging down only slightly, to about 28% , in the following school year. Similar numbers hold for California.

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By contrast, in the year prior to the pandemic, chronic absenteeism measured at 15% nationwide and 12% in California. At the time, the U.S. Department of Education considered this a crisis.

So as some people spend valuable time and resources worrying about pronouns, schools are grappling with a crisis that has doubled in just a few years, but which has received considerably less attention among the general public.

Chronic absenteeism is a term often used interchangeably with truancy. But the latter is a more narrow term for unexcused absences, whereas chronic absenteeism includes truancies as well as excused absences and suspensions. A student is considered chronically absent when they have missed at least 10% of school days for any reason.

It’s not hard to imagine how damaging it can be when a student misses out on that much school time. If the pandemic taught us one thing about education, it’s that in-person learning is crucial to student development.

Not surprisingly, students who are chronically absent fall behind in schoolwork, and it can be extremely hard to recover from the lost learning. Younger students struggle to read and fail to reach grade-level standards. Many eventually drop out.

What’s more, these students lose opportunities to build friendships, become part of a community and explore possible career interests. Those low standardized test scores that we keep hearing about? Chronic absenteeism could be a key culprit behind them.

This isn’t just worrisome from an educational perspective. Chronically absent students also have a higher risk of bad outcomes later in their lives, including poor health, diminished job prospects and involvement in the criminal justice system. Students who do attend school regularly can also suffer because of classroom disruptions caused by kids coming and going.

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The damage can extend to the nation as a whole by negatively impacting economic productivity and social stability. High rates of missed school tend to be worse in disadvantaged areas; they both result from and exacerbate inequality.

The problem is so severe that several months ago the White House issued an “all hands on deck” call to mount a vigorous effort to get kids back in school. The federal effort has included additional grant funds, technical assistance, mental health programs and more help with tutoring, mentoring and other support services. States also have some remaining pandemic-era relief funds, some of which can be used to address the absenteeism problem. California has invested billions of dollars in programs to encourage student engagement.

Even with the extra resources, it won’t be easy. Chronic absenteeism is a thorny issue, complicated by the fact that it is often brought on by many other hard-to-solve factors, such as housing instability, financial hardship, lack of transportation, bullying and physical and mental health concerns. The pandemic might be over, but many families are still experiencing residual trauma that, at least in theory, continues to weigh down school attendance.

But getting at the precise reasons why so many kids are missing too much school will be critical to devising solutions.

“We take an individualistic approach,” said Sarah Coley, Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s administrative director of student services.

“We take a look at what’s going on with that student and their family and try to find a way to help the student. We look at barriers that are preventing them from going to school, working in partnership with those families.”

The district has directed resources, including counseling staff, to school sites to address the various campus’ particular set of issues impacting attendance. It has sent out emails and postcards emphasizing the positive aspects of attending class. Connections are facilitated with community organizations that can offer assistance to students and their families.

“That’s where we’ve really shifted,” said Coley. “We’re less reactive and more proactive.”

The effort is gradually paying off. Newport-Mesa’s chronic absenteeism rate edged down from 23.9% in the 2021-22 school year to 21.2% in 2022-23.

But such incremental progress still leaves much work to be done.

Schools face a constant barrage of criticism and complaints. Some of it is valid, other times not so much. But it must be more widely recognized that if schools are to fulfill their most basic purpose — teaching students what they need to know to succeed in life — it would be wise to focus less on the distractions of manufactured controversies and more on the most fundamental goal: getting kids to show up.

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