Addressing the underlying causes of chronic absenteeism

Addressing the underlying causes of chronic absenteeism

(N.M.) One student, living in a poverty-stricken household, must work to supplement his family’s income and is regularly late to first period.

Another, a sixth grader, stays home for days at a time multiple times a year due to chronic ear infections and lacks regular access to a physician.

A third student saw his father commit suicide and has been depressed and withdrawn, often skipping school to stay in bed all day.

Behind every case of chronic absenteeism are causal events and conditions that may or may not be apparent to teachers and school officials who are mandated to intervene.

In an effort to more deeply address such attendance barriers, Albuquerque Public Schools, where 14.8 percent of students were identified as habitual truants last year, is hosting a three-day summit beginning today to raise awareness about the problem of truancy, share best practices shown to reduce it and, most of all, develop stronger community partnerships with mental health, physical health and primary care providers to whom schools can refer students and families in times of need.

“Truancy is not a disease. It is not a delinquent act. It is a symptom of something deeper that’s happening,” said Kristine Meurer, executive director of the student, family and community support division for Albuquerque Public Schools. “If kids aren’t coming to school and parents are not even notifying the school in some way that means there’s something going on.”

Schools across the nation have in recent years increased their focus on student attendance in the wake of overwhelming evidence that even a small amount of lost learning time can have long-term negative impacts on a child’s academic success. They have implemented tools and strategies aimed at better tracking absences, educating parents and changing student attitudes about missing school.

New Mexico lawmakers recently introduced a pair of bills that would have suspended or postponed issuance of a student’s driver’s license if he or she were deemed habitually truant, or as having 10 or more days of unexcused absences. Concerns that such methods would only exacerbate the problem doomed the bills to failure.

In Albuquerque, 23 of the district’s schools are part of a Truancy Intervention Program which sends social workers to intervene when students begin to show signs of school avoidance. The social workers often make home visits and work with the students, their families and school staff on a plan to get the kid back in school, while also targeting the deeper issues keeping them out of the classroom.

Meurer said that while some issues are easily solved, such as parents not properly excusing their child, or not knowing that the reason they’re taking their kid out of school isn’t considered an excused absence, many problems are more difficult to address.

According to Meurer the district’s eight social workers have reported facing challenging situations including substance abuse by the student or within the family; chronic illnesses not brought to the attention of the school, teen pregnancy, students with suicidal thoughts, or trauma due to domestic disputes, community violence or the death of a friend or family member.

“What we’re finding is that it’s all over the board,” Meurer said. “There’s no one reason for truancy.  It’s pretty simple; if you’re not there you can’t learn. But the reasons why they are not there is absolutely not simple.”

The district is looking into simplifying the process parents must go through to report their child’s absences and make it more uniform across schools. And through partnerships it hopes to build at the summit, the district can work with a school to rearrange a student’s schedule so that a job doesn’t interfere with morning classes. Schools can also refer families to free health clinics or provide counseling for students dealing with loss.

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