1 in 3 Black Students Chronically Absent from Madison Schools

Molly Beck, via a kind reader:

One in three black students was chronically absent from school during the 2013-14 school year, according to a Madison School District report.

Thirty-six percent of the district’s black students have an attendance rate lower than 90 percent. That corresponds to missing, on average, one half day of school every week, or 18 days during the year. The rate has remained steady for the past three school years.

Overall, 20 percent of students were chronically absent last school year, up from 19 percent during the two previous school years, according to the report, which was presented to the School Board on Monday. The district’s total attendance rate was 93 percent.

Nearly one in three students from low-income households was chronically absent compared to one in 10 students who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and board members said the data illustrate the need to further emphasize school attendance — especially as the district seeks to close the achievement gap between white and minority students and as it works to increase academic rigor in middle and high schools.

“On average the district does pretty well, but we have subgroups that we simply need to be sure they are in school more,” said James Howard, board vice president. “You can’t learn if you’re not in school — it’s just that simple.”

How to Get Kids to Class: To Keep Poor Students in School, Provide Social Services

FOR the 16 million American children living below the federal poverty line, the start of a new school year should be reason to celebrate. Summer is no vacation when your parents are working multiple jobs or looking for one. Many kids are left to fend for themselves in neighborhoods full of gangs, drugs and despair. Given the hardships at home, poor kids might be expected to have the best attendance records, if only for the promise of a hot meal and an orderly classroom.

But it doesn’t usually work out that way. According to the education researchers Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes at Johns Hopkins, children living in poverty are by far the most likely to be chronically absent from school (which is generally defined as missing at least 10 percent of class days each year).

Amazingly, the federal government does not track absenteeism, but the state numbers are alarming. In Maryland, for example, 31 percent of high school students eligible for the federal lunch program had been chronically absent; for students above the income threshold, the figure was 12 percent.

Thanks to groundbreaking research compiled by Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the director at Attendance Works, we have ample proof that everything else being equal, chronically absent students have lower G.P.A.s, lower test scores and lower graduation rates than their peers who attend class regularly.

The pattern often starts early. Last year in New Mexico, a third-grade teacher contacted the local affiliate of Communities in Schools, the national organization that I run, for help with a student who had 25 absences in just the first semester. After several home visits, we found that 10 people were living in her two-bedroom apartment, including the student’s mother, who had untreated mental health issues. The little girl often got lost in the shuffle, with no clean clothes to wear and no one to track her progress. Nor was there anything like a quiet place to do homework.

  • Jeff Henriques

    Rather than simply stating the obvious about how educational innovations and curriculum changes won’t have any impact on the achievement gap when the students aren’t attending school, I’d ask the district to look to see whether our gaps between rich and poor or minority and majority are smaller when we only include students who are regularly attending classes.