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The value of showing up

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A few years ago, Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School Principal Terry Patton was trying to figure out how to get more of her students to attend school regularly when she hit on a novel idea: Get a washing machine and dryer.

From talking to her students and their parents, she had learned that many children didn't come to school every day because they were ashamed of wearing dirty uniforms, and their families don't have laundry facilities at home. So Ms. Patton got a non-profit group to donate a washer-dryer to the school and told her students they could use it. Soon, children who had been skipping school two or three days a month started showing up regularly for class. Thanks to that tactic and a variety of others — some conventional, some not — attendance rates at Franklin Square soared, and so did test scores.

It may seem strange to install household appliances in schools to lure chronically absent students back to class and boost their achievement. Yet as an educator, Ms. Patton is acutely aware that kids can't learn if they aren't in their seats — and that chronic absenteeism is a red alert signaling that students are headed for academic trouble. Kids playing hooky from school is often regarded as an intractable problem, but in fact there are many practical, common-sense steps teachers and principals can take that don't break the bank but significantly improve attendance rates and student outcomes.

All of them start with recognizing that chronic absenteeism — defined in Maryland as missing 20 or more days of school during the year — is a problem with far-reaching consequences for children. There are many reasons kids don't come to school, but they all lead to the same result: lower test scores, increased risk of dropping out and greater difficulty later on finding and holding a job or staying out of jail. All these adverse effects can be traced back to a failure to establish good school attendance habits during a child's formative years, starting in pre-kindergarten.

Research has shown that kids who are chronically absent in pre-k have lower second-grade test scores, and children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read proficiently in third grade. Moreover, the effects are cumulative: For every year a child is chronically absent in elementary school the less likely he or she is to do well in middle school or high school. By the time a student has been chronically absent four years between the eighth and 12th grades, the chance that he or she will drop out before graduating from high school is 61 percent. Clearly this is a problem that educators can't afford to ignore.

Yet schools often don't know how big the problem is because many don't track how many students are chronically absent. Instead, they measure what is known as average daily attendance, or the percentage of students who come to school every day. Many districts use ADA to set school funding levels. But that statistic can mask significant numbers of chronically absent students.

That's why schools should be required to track chronic absenteeism as well as average daily attendance, and to treat reducing such absences as a goal of their improvement efforts just as they now do test scores and graduation rates. Baltimore City, where a quarter of all students are chronically absent, including 40 percent of high school students, already requires schools to keep track of chronic absenteeism levels, but many jurisdictions do not. And even the city doesn't make reductions in absenteeism a factor in evaluating the effectiveness of principals and administrators. Given the importance of regular attendance, school leaders must be held accountable for failing to make take steps to reduce chronic absenteeism.

That includes rewarding educators who cut chronic absenteeism rates and singling out for recognition students who maintain excellent attendance records. It may also mean buying a washer-dryer or even having a barber visit the school to groom children's hair — another of Ms. Patton's unusual but successful schemes to boost attendance at Franklin Square. Educators need to use every tool at their disposal to remove the barriers to good attendance, be they parents' misconceptions about the importance of regular attendance, chronic health conditions, lack of transportation or other problems in the home, or fears of bullying or feeling overwhelmed by academic difficulties at school.

Sometimes it takes more than access to laundry and a haircut to solve these problems — indeed, that has been the case for some students at Franklin Square. But as Ms. Patton proves, we can do better if we focus on the issue, and that starts with tracking the problem and setting goals for improvement.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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