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How A School's Attendance Number Hides Big Problems

Student is late to class i
LA Johnson/NPR
Student is late to class
LA Johnson/NPR

Every morning, the familiar routine plays out in hundreds of thousands of classrooms: A teacher looks out over the desks, taking note of who's in their seats and who isn't.

On any given day, maybe there are one or two empty chairs. One here, one there. And that all goes into the school's daily attendance rate.

But here's what that morning ritual doesn't show: That empty desk? It might be the same one that was empty last week or two weeks ago. The desk of a student who has racked up five, 10, 20 absences this year.

It's called chronic absence. The official definition: missing more than 10 percent of the school year — just two days a month.

And the real-life implication: a warning sign for a student on the brink of failing or dropping out.

Experts call chronic absence an "unseen force" hidden behind average daily attendance figures of 90 or 95 percent that schools hail as a sign of success.

"Daily attendance averages tell you how many students show up every day," says Hedy Chang, who heads Attendance Works, a nonprofit education policy group. "But not how many are missing so much school that they are headed off track academically."

Yet there's a growing effort to pull that chronic absence figure out of the shadows. The U.S. Education Department has taken note: Next year, for the first time ever, it will release school-level data on how many U.S. students missed 15 or more days of school.

The Math Problem

To understand how deceptive attendance numbers can be, take a look at Baltimore. This year, the elementary attendance rate in the Baltimore city public schools is 93 percent. Anything in the 90s is an A — so that's good, right?

But, look more closely and you find that nearly 20 percent of students in grades one through five have missed more than 20 days of school. That's more than 6,000 children.

"As a statistic, attendance can hide patterns," says Mark Gaither, principal at Wolfe Street Academy, an elementary school in Baltimore. He would know. Ten years ago, his school was in bad shape. Test scores were terrible, and the state was threatening to take over.

But when he arrived, he focused on attendance, then in the low 90s. "Not abysmal," he thought at the time.

He soon discovered that day in, day out, it was the same students who were not showing up. And these kids, he says, "were missing 30 percent of their education." Not surprisingly, these were the students struggling the most in basic things like learning to read.

"That was the performance gap," Gaither says. "The devil is in the details — the devil is in the individual child. If we don't get this kid to school, they're going to fail."

So he launched a kid-by-kid campaign — heavily focused on data — to raise attendance. And today, the school has just a handful of chronically absent kids — and much higher test scores.

Taking A Different Approach

A growing number of school districts are doing what Gaither did: using data to attack this problem head-on.

Patterson Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C., is a good example.

Every Thursday morning, Principal Victorie Thomas convenes a small group in the school's conference room. Sitting around the oval table are several social workers, the attendance monitor and a City Year volunteer. They all have a stack of paper: a kid-by-kid list of absences of the school year to date.

What they're doing is searching for patterns, highlighting names of students who have missed three or more days. Then, they share from their different perspectives what they know about each student.

They start with the youngest kids. They talk about home visits, discuss what community resources may be available and make plans to call families and talk to teachers about what might be going on.

"We go child-by-child because that's how important it is to us," says Thomas. "One day can make a big difference."

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