According to “The Link Between School Attendance and Good Health,” a policy statement released this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics, chronic school absenteeism puts students at risk for unhealthy behaviors that can lead to poor long-term health outcomes.
“We know that chronic absenteeism can lead to dropping out of high school,” said Dr. Mandy Allison, a pediatrician in Aurora, Colo., and co-author of the the policy. “Dropping out of high school is associated with practicing risky behaviors. The other piece is that poor educational achievement leads to having a lower socioeconomic status, which can increase the likelihood of suffering from chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, in adulthood. Chronic absenteeism is an early marker of these outcomes that we can do something about.”
In a published report titled “Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools: A hidden educational crisis,” the U.S. Department of Education reported that more than 7 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16. According to the report, that is 16 percent of the nation’s student population, which means one in six students is chronically absent from school.
The rates of chronic absenteeism vary between states. Too many students across Ohio are persistently missing school, according to the Ohio Department of Education. In fact, it reports that 16 percent of students in Ohio were chronically absent in the 2017-18 school year. The state has been looking to change this in recent years.
The Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 410, which establishes changes to excess absenteeism and truancy policies, and states, “Districts will amend or adopt policies that outline their interventions and plans for students who miss too much school.”
“Intervention teams serve two purposes,” says Dan Minnich, Ohio Department of Education executive director of communications and outreach. “They help the school understand the root cause of the student’s absences. They also encourage communication and partnership between the family and the school to create a plan that provides supports for attendance.”
The state has a goal to reduce chronic absenteeism to 5 percent or less, as listed in the 2017-18 State of Ohio School Report Card.
This year’s School Report Cards from the Ohio Department of Education are the first to track attendance under the new guidelines established by House Bill 410.
During the 2017-18 year, while 13.6 percent was the goal across the state, 44 percent of schools — many of which are here in Northeast Ohio — did not meet the threshold.
However, the schools are still working on ways to implement the new mandate.
“We used to track student absences by days missed, now we are required to track by the hours missed,” says Joshua Allen, Akron Public Schools’ student coordinator. “If you have to leave school early, those minutes or hours can be counted against you,”
As directed by House Bill 410, if a student misses 30 or more consecutive hours that are unexcused, 42 unexcused hours in a month, or 72 unexcused hours in a school year, the student will be labeled with habitual truancy. As a result, rather than suspend the student and refer them to the court system, the schools must now intervene and create a plan to help the student.
“While the court certainly has a role in addressing truancy, in order to reduce absenteeism and truancy, schools must be supportive to remove barriers to attendance,” Minnich says.
Students who are chronically absent are at a serious risk of not graduating. The bill places more accountability on the schools, parents and students to complete their education and reduce the factors of missing school.
However, there are many reasons that students do not attend school hours, ranging from language barriers to health and transportation issues.
In many districts, transportation is only provided to those who live more than two miles from the school.
“We learned that a child was chronically absent because the mother faced challenges in getting the child to school,” Allen says. “Her child didn’t have bus services because she lived within the two-mile range. She didn’t have a car. She had a one-month-old child, a one-year-old and a very young school age child. She struggled carrying the two children while walking to school and often the school age child was late. The mother needed a double stroller and didn’t have the resources to get one. We helped and that resolved the issue.”
In his role, Allen is dedicated to removing obstacles that prevent students from attending school. In one situation, he even contacted a parent’s job to make arrangements for her to get off earlier so that she could get home in time to get her son to school.
Allen says Akron Public Schools has a team of drivers that also have taken on the additional responsibility of going to kids’ homes who are absent to see what they can do to help them get to school.
However, some school districts are struggling to meet the requirements of the new bill.
“The challenge for us is that unfunded mandates come down that we have to adhere to without additional resources,” says Bedford City Schools Superintendent Andrea Celico. “We don’t have enough social workers or counselors to dedicate time to an intervention team. There is no time and there is no money.”
In fact, Celico states that in the case of her district, court documents seemed to be more effective in moving parents and students into action so that attendance is improved.
As of now, many districts do not yet know the full impact House Bill 410 has had on their attendance.