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Yes, attendance is that important [Commentary]

FamilyLaws and LegislationTisha EdwardsBusiness EnterprisesThe Whiting-Turner Contracting Company

Many good things are happening in Baltimore's public schools. We've moved away from zero-tolerance discipline policies, graduation rates are on the rise, and middle-graders are scoring higher on national assessments.

But much more progress is needed, and Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards recently highlighted a critically important challenge: improving school attendance.

Ms. Edwards announced this month that she would begin to hold principals more accountable for high rates of chronic absenteeism in their schools. She did so because when a student is chronically absent –—missing 20 or more days of school — that student is far more likely to fall behind in class, become disconnected from school and, eventually, drop out.

In a letter to the Baltimore school community, Edwards wrote, "Of those members of the Class of 2012 who were never chronically absent in high school, 92.2 percent graduated after five years. By contrast, of those students who were chronically absent at least once in high school, just 58.5 percent graduated after five years; and of those who were chronically absent in 9th grade, only 45.7 percent graduated after five years."

And even though the school system is making progress at keeping students in school, in each of the last three years one quarter of all city school students and nearly one third of its special education students have been chronically absent. That's far too many.

This is a problem that affects all of us — principals and teachers, parents and caregivers, business leaders and community members. We're glad to know Ms. Edwards is demanding more accountability in this area. But frankly, we're all accountable.

According to the Baltimore Student Attendance Campaign, which works to increase student attendance in Baltimore City Public Schools, poor attendance is a clue that there are other challenges in a child's life, reflecting, too, the degree to which schools, families and communities are adequately addressing children's needs.

The campaign quotes a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty that says, "Attendance suffers when families are struggling to keep up with the routine of school despite the lack of reliable transportation, long work hours in poorly paid jobs with little flexibility, unstable and unaffordable housing, inadequate health care and community violence."

In Maryland, this idea is particularly true in areas of high poverty, such as Baltimore. Poverty not only contributes to high instances of absenteeism, it exacerbates its negative effects. And in Maryland, children from families living in poverty are three times as likely to be chronically absent — as early as kindergarten — than those who make more money.

Imagine a single parent who has several children and one, the youngest, is sick. Unless the other children are old enough to get themselves safely to school, it is possible the stretched-thin parent might have a difficult time coming up with a way to get them there.

Or imagine a parent whose child has a disability and relies upon a yellow school bus to get him to school—and that bus is so often late that the parent is at risk of losing her job.

Or consider the plight of families this winter, who have had to deal with several late-arrival days, because of snow. If parents have rigid job schedules, with unfriendly leave policies, it might seem more logical to have the children stay home so the breadwinners can make it to work on time. Families with greater means might have a nanny handle drop-off and pick-up, or a stay-at-home neighbor with reliable transportation. Many families in the city don't have those luxuries.

But there are options.

We sit on the boards of Open Society Institute-Baltimore and Maryland Disability Law Center, both of which have joined forces in partnership with the Baltimore Attendance Collaborative, made up of 22 nonprofit and public agencies, Baltimore City Public Schools and the mayor's office. Together, we are looking for solutions to these layered and critical issues.

Research and experience have shown us that schools with better attendance generally have characteristics that support families, allowing them to quickly delve into the causes of absence and address the obstacles to regular attendance. This means that schools have strong community partnerships to help parents and caregivers solve some of the life problems that are contributing to a child's poor attendance. Some schools have had success by providing school-based health services, so students with asthma, for example, can be treated on site instead of sent home.

Others provide socializing and networking opportunities for parents, helping them to create carpooling groups with people they might not have connected with otherwise. And at least one intrepid principal installed a school washer and dryer so students without access to laundries could wash their mandatory uniforms — as opposed to skipping school to avoid being disciplined, or worse, teased by classmates for having dirty clothes.

Finally, it's critical that parents and schools maintain good communication so that parents are aware of attendance problems and have help from school staff in solving them.

But schools and parents cannot do it alone.

We hope that Dr. Gregory Thornton, the district's incoming CEO, will recognize attendance as the crucial issue that it is and partner fully with community organizations and parents to intensify the work that's already begun.

And as community and business leaders, we need to advocate for changes that will help families succeed: better public transportation; safer streets for our kids to walk; improved health care, affordable housing, and community support services; after school programs that integrate young people with and without disabilities; a higher living wage and more family-friendly leave policies.

Interim CEO Edwards has delivered a call to action — a plea for assistance in reducing chronic absence in our city. Make no mistake about it; that call was meant for all of us.

Eddie Brown serves as a board member at the Open Society Institute — Baltimore and is the president and CEO of Brown Capital Management. Brian DeWitt is president of the Board of Directors at the Maryland Disability Law Center and vice president of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company. Their emails are ecb11102@gmail.com and Brian.DeWitt@Whiting-Turner.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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