“Half of life is just showing up.” I once loved repeating that to my students who were regularly absent from school. Like all good quotes, it owns a perfect blend of simplicity, adaptation, and sublimity. I used to love saying it, that is, until a young child curtly responded, “Sometimes I can’t find a way to show up.” I wasn’t sure if he meant that, or if he was attempting to create his own unique axiom, but it certainly struck me. After all, if he cannot find a way to show up to school, how can we expect him to succeed?
Chronic absenteeism–missing more than 10 percent of school a year–occurs at rates three to four times higher in high-poverty areas, according to a study of six states conducted by Johns Hopkins University in May of last year. In these low-income communities, it is normal to find a quarter of the class missing every day, with some students missing 30 to 40 days a year–a fact that, as an inner-city English teacher, I regularly witness firsthand.
The most alarming part is that multiple studies across various states show kindergartners to have the highest rate of absenteeism outside of high school students. Educators and policymakers have known for years that falling behind before 3rd grade has a high correlation not just with high school dropout rates, but with incarceration rates as well. Children this young are not playing hooky or uninterested in learning–five minutes alone with any 1st grader yields more questions than you can answer without jumping on Wikipedia. The reasons these children stay home can all be traced to poverty.