Chronic absences in early grades take big toll at graduation time

There is perhaps no better indicator of future high school dropouts than the attendance record of sixth graders, according to findings delivered Thursday at a symposium on chronic absenteeism in Sacramento.

You look at the graph and it's like the 2008 stock market crash," said Robert Balfanz Ph.D., a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "You see every year the numbers going down, down, down of those students who are on track for graduation that were chronically absent during the sixth grade."

The link between student performance and classroom attendance isn't just an issue for the older kids. Data presented Thursday shows that students with good attendance records during kindergarten were more than three times as likely to score at proficient or better in reading by the third grade than those kindergarteners that chronically missed class.

The seminar, sponsored by the California Department of Education along with Children Now, drew more than 300 district administrators, educators and public officials for a closer look at one of the most problematic - and yet critically important - aspects of public education.

Along with Balfanz, one of the nation's leading researchers into the causes and remedies of high school dropouts, the forum also included a presentation from Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based group that promotes attendance-improvement programs nationally.

Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction also presented, noting the fundamental importance of attendance.

"We are here today because - for all the focus on school accountability - there's a very basic fact that is often overlooked: Even the best teacher can't help students who don't make it to school," Torlakson said in an opening presentation.

"Just as meteorologists save lives by sounding an early warning about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods - we need an early warning system for students who are chronically absent - and whose academic career is in jeopardy," he said.

It is somewhat ironic that the presentation comes at the same time that lawmakers only a few blocks away were beginning their negotiations over how best to close the state's budget shortfall now estimated at $9.6 billion. Expectations are that even though state tax collections have improved, deep cuts to schools will still be needed - including support for attendance programs as well as many classified workers who are typically engaged in truancy oversight.

Several times during the program, however, the link between better attendance and more revenue for districts was made - which in some cases can provide more than enough money to protect attendance programs.

Indeed, Chang noted that if each of the 5,421 students at Oakland Unified attended six more days of school - the district would receive more than $1.1 million in additional average daily attendance aid.

Other notes from the meeting:

  • About 20 percent of the 1.6 million students in New York City schools missed a month or more of school last year.

  • In Baltimore, about 40 percent of students will have missed a year or more of schooling over a five year period by the time they reach the sixth grade.

  • Oakland's African-American students are three times more likely than white students to miss 10 percent of the school year.

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