Nearly all the counties in central Maryland had slightly higher than average percentages of students who were chronically absent from school in the 2013-2014 school year, according to a new report. And in Baltimore more than a third of students missed enough days to endanger their long-term academic achievement.
Across the nation, 6.5 million students or 13 percent of the public school population were absent more than 15 days, or three weeks a year, according to the report released Tuesday by Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that promotes improved school attendance polices and practices, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Everyone Graduates Center.
"What we found was that it is both widespread and highly concentrated," said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher who was one of the authors of the report.
When students are chronically absent it "erodes their achievement and threatens their chances of graduating," according to the report. Studies show that missing just 10 percent of days in a year predicts lower achievement in the elementary grades, class failures in middle school, and can lead to a higher chance of students dropping out of high school.
Some of the nation's top performing and largest suburban districts had a large number of students who were absent on too many days of the year. Nearly 20,000 students in Baltimore County – or 18 percent – are missing from their classrooms at least 15 days a year, according to the report.
In an attempt to improve attendance Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance recently instituted a new mentoring program that will help students feel more connected to school. The efforts targets students in sixth and ninth grades, time periods when students are most vulnerable to slipping behind academically.
"We are implementing family and community engagement strategies," said Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for the school system. School staff also are going out into the community to talk to families "in an environment that is most comfortable for them."
Montgomery County schools had a 16 percent rate of chronic absenteeism. Washington, Frederick, Harford and Anne Arundel counties all had rates of 15 percent or above.
"That is a lot of kids missing a lot of school," said Balfanz.
Maryland was highlighted in the report for districts with high absenteeism but Balfanz said that is because the state has "relatively few school districts in a highly populated area."
Balfanz said large school districts with big student populations such as Baltimore City, have difficulty improving attendance without significant help from the community in the form of mentoring and other programs.
The report found the highest rates of absenteeism in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland, all cities that have neighborhoods with generations of poor students.
"They all share a common history," Balfanz said.