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Chronic absences plague Baltimore [Commentary]

Throughout the Baltimore City school year, student success will be measured in the traditional ways, through test scores and grades, and, for high school seniors, by whether or not they graduate. While tracking such standards is vital to understanding student achievement and progress as well as the success of our school system as a whole, another key indicator deserves far more focused attention: attendance.

For students to succeed in school, they have to be in school. And not enough of Baltimore City students are attending school as much as they should. Last year, nearly one in four of Baltimore's 85,000 students were classified as chronically absent, having missed 20 or more days of school per year.

These more than 20,000 students are almost universally less likely to succeed in school. With less time in the classroom, chronically absent students quickly fall behind their peers and produce poorer outcomes on state assessments, and far too many of them won't graduate. Among the city's class of 2012, only 58 percent of students classified as chronically absent for even just one year during high school eventually graduated. In contrast, more than 92 percent of their classmates who were never chronically absent earned their diplomas.

Missing school can be just as damaging to younger students. Kindergartners who are chronically absent, for instance, are twice as likely to repeat a grade before third grade and quickly fall below grade level in reading, which can permanently set them back for the rest of their school careers.

One of the most critical times of the year for building good attendance habits is the beginning of the school year. Baltimore students who miss three or more days of school in the month of September are twice as likely to be chronically absent by the end of the school year than their regularly attending peers.

Why are students in Baltimore absent? Some students do not have access to reliable transportation; some move often and have to switch schools; some do not have adequate access to proper health care and miss school because of regular illness; and some feel unsafe or unwelcome in their school environment. Many become discouraged and overwhelmed, caught up in a downward spiral of academic struggling.

Fall is when schools and families collectively set expectations for the coming year, offering a critical window for establishing a culture of attendance. So, it is important that we, as a community, make every effort — particularly in the weeks and months to come — to ensure that our children can and do get to school every day.

There are a growing number of resources available. Attendance Works, a national and state initiative, has declared September to be Attendance Awareness Month and offers a variety of resources to help school systems and communities understand that establishing good attendance at the beginning of school can lead to the development of long-term attendance habits, which in turn can lead to a far more successful academic careers.

Having recognized the strong correlation between attendance and student success, administrators, teachers and staff in Baltimore City Public Schools are putting more proactive programs in place to reduce the barriers to attendance and create welcoming school communities.

Family League of Baltimore, working through the 47 city schools participating in our "Community Schools" program, is also focusing on reducing chronic absenteeism. We are bringing teachers, families and community members together to provide uniforms, backpacks and school resources to get children ready for school and create safe passages to school for walkers. Community Schools also provide access to resources like medical care that often keep kids at home. Over the past few weeks, we have gone door-to-door in neighborhoods with the highest rates of absenteeism to educate families and residents.

It is in everyone's best interest that the city's children have every minute of learning time available to them. So before the school year gets underway, ask a neighbor if you can help see their child to the bus or call your local school to see how you can help more kids be there on the first day and every day thereafter.

Jonathon Rondeau is president and CEO of the Family League of Baltimore. His email is jrondeau@familyleague.org.

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