At the start of the 2016-17 school year a national report from the Department of Education was released on student attendance, and shortly after, responses were published from a number of different entities, including one from Governor Terry Branstad regarding the issue in Iowa schools. We have had a few students over the past few years that miss a lot of school, and quite a few students that miss more school that we think they should. However, not until this report came out did we have a measuring stick or a standard to compare to that indicated what was too many absences. In this first ever report issued by the Department of Education, the number that indicated “chronic” was missing 10% or 15 days in a school year. That is missing school for any reason. Using that, in late July we took a closer look at the attendance of our students in the 2015-16 school year and found a higher percentage of our students that I would have expected.
On a national level, during the 2013-14 school year, over 6.5 million students fell into the category of chronic, which is about 13% of students who were missing at least three weeks of school. We have had the occasional student who missed significantly more than that, despite all of our efforts to get them to come to school. Those students are the ones that were in the front of our minds, so when we applied the 15 day standard to all students, we found that we had 66 students in the high school that missed three weeks or more of school over the course of the year. That is far too many days to miss school! A couple of months later, the Iowa Department of Education released a report on all districts in Iowa that showed our district had 7.1% of our students in grades kindergarten through 12th chronically absent. That skews higher as kids get older and at our high school it was a little over 19%!
Nationally, almost 20% of high school students are chronically absent and minority groups have higher percentages than average. Because of our low minority population, the impact is negligible on our data. While we are below the national average, we are still too high, in large part because few of our absences are due to long-term illness or injury. Yes, each year we have a student or two that have a significant injury, surgery, or debilitating illness that causes them to miss school, but more often than not, the reasons given by many parents for their child are not at that level.
Why is this important? It is not surprising that these students perform much lower on tests and do worse in college. When looking at our list of students a number of them are off to college or plan to be, and many of them are unequipped because they missed out on important learning or they have yet to develop the self-discipline to get to school each day, or both. Some of the research that accompanied the report suggests that even missing 15 days a year results in a student being significantly behind his/her peers in terms of what they have learned. When looking at the way we structure our classes at the high school missing seven to ten days in a semester can result in a permanent loss of learning because that instruction is not going to take place elsewhere.
When the people putting the report together looked at why students were missing school, there are some very serious reasons that for the most part we do not have to worry about at NFVHS. Many report that they are afraid for their safety, either due to having to travel through dangerous neighborhoods or the threat of physical harm in school from other students. Concerns about being bullied or harassed also fall into this category. While at first blush one would associate these reasons being more prevalent in inner cities, bullying and harassment can happen anywhere. We are fortunate that our community is safe and that our children can walk to school without fear, and we are also fortunate that the bullying and harassment that does take place has been dealt with or has not risen to the level that students are afraid to come to school.
When looking at the other two categories of excuses for not going to school, illness is one of those major reasons, paired with students having to work, or because of involvement in the juvenile court system. The third category is parents and students not placing a value on being in school. Of those students who are chronically absent at our school, the reasons given for their absence would fall into these categories. We do have the occasional student who has a legitimate illness that causes them to miss a large number of days. Those cannot be prevented and we recognize that. On the flip side, we have those that are called in sick or run to the doctor when they are not felling good for a day here and a day there that end up accumulating a large number of absences. These students are the more worrisome because they also fall into the third category of not placing a high value on school, and they make little effort to “catch up” on what they missed. Unfortunately, when assessing our kids that have missed 15 or more days of school, the highest percentage of them do fall into the third category of not valuing school. What is particularly frustrating is that this is generational and we can talk until we are blue in the face and not present a strong enough case to get them to school on a more regular basis. An obvious tool we have at our disposal is Iowa Code and mandatory attendance provisions, and the county attorney whose job it is to enforce truancy laws. However, in all three of my stops as a high school administrator, getting the county attorney to help has been a great chore, and more often than not, has not helped.
There is a saying that came about when the Iowa Lottery started a number of years ago: You can’t win if you don’t play! The same can be said in regard to a child’s education: You can’t learn if you don't attend! I will be the first to say — and I have many times — don’t let school get in the way of your education. There are fantastic learning experiences beyond the walls of our school. However, that is not the reason kids are missing school. When one actually carves out the actual time that students are in class over the course of the 180 days of the school year, every minute is important. Missing a day or two over the course of the semester is one thing, but when one considers 19% of our kids missed more than 10 days, school must be a higher priority in their life!