At Woodlawn High School in suburban Baltimore County, one of the greatest challenges confronting educators is just getting students to show up.
Foster care students coping with unstable families, immigrants working to earn money and disengaged teenagers all find reasons to skip a day here and there, Principal Georgina Aye says.
For many, those days add up.
Last year, more than half of all Woodlawn students missed at least 10 percent of school last year.
The state calls that chronically absent. Research shows that it’s enough absences to make a difference in those students’ futures.
Woodlawn’s rate, while high, is far from the worst in the state. At two dozen public schools, more than 75 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2016-17 school year, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. Many are in Baltimore’s lowest-income neighborhoods.
Nearly one in five Maryland students — 18.3 percent — was chronically absent last year, the data show.
Baltimore has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the state: 37 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of school last year. The rate in Baltimore County was roughly 20 percent.
In Anne Arundel County, it was 15 percent. In Harford County, it was 14.6 percent. In Carroll County, it was 11.4 percent.
Even in the highly regarded Howard County school district, which had the lowest rate of chronic absenteeism in the state, roughly one in 10 kids missed at least 10 percent of school days.
The longstanding problem of chronic absenteeism is now gaining attention as states begin putting in place new accountability systems under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
In Maryland’s new five-star rating system, which debuts this September, absentee rates account for 15 percent of a school’s grade. Sue Fothergill, associate director for policy at San Francisco-based Attendance Works, says that’s one of the largest percentages in the nation.
The costs of chronic absenteeism are intuitive and substantiated by research: If kids aren’t coming to school, they’re not going to learn as much as their peers. Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to be proficient readers by third grade, research shows. By sixth grade, those who miss more than 10 percent of school are more likely to drop out altogether.
When the State Board began looking at the numbers last winter, some members began asking whether the rates were a window into another problem.
“There is some indication that we should be concerned about kids who are chronically absent still getting diplomas,” board President Andrew Smarick said.
Robert Balfanz, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Social Organization of Schools, says school systems generally have ignored high rates of chronic absences — to their detriment. When educators have tried to improve academic achievement, he says, they have struggled in some cases for a simple reason: Not enough students were showing up consistently.
“It is very hard for those reforms to have any impact,” Balfanz said. Absenteeism “is the quiet thing that pushed against a lot of efforts,” he said.
Critics of the state’s new accountability system say attaching so much weight to absentee rates is unfair to school leaders, who have little control over the factors that cause their students to miss school.
“How does a principal make a child come to school?” asked Jimmy Gittings, president of the union that represents principals in Baltimore. “I don’t care if that child is in the third grade or the 12th grade — it lies in the hands of home.”
Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education advocacy group. He says factoring absentee rates into school grades will punish high-poverty schools without offering much useful new information. Children in low-income areas with unreliable transportation have the highest absentee rates.
“They’re going to be given a black eye,” Petrilli said.
Attendance Works aims to reduce absenteeism among all students.
“It has a more profound effect for students in poverty,” Fothergill said, “but it does affect all kids.”
Researchers have found that middle class kids begin to show a decline in academic performance and graduation rates when they are absent 10 percent of the year, so policymakers set that as a benchmark.
In nine Baltimore schools, more than 80 percent of students were chronically absent last year. All serve populations where more than 50 percent of students qualify for federal poverty assistance.
Brian Robinson says he missed 101 days of school his junior year at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School. More than half of the school’s students are from poor families.
Robinson blames a combination of factors. He says he had to work long hours to help his family pay rent. Unreliable transportation made getting to school an hours-long ordeal. On the days he went to school, he felt as if no one there seemed interested in supporting him anyway.
Robinson, 19, says he wasn’t thinking about the ways in which his decision to skip school could affect Mervo’s grade. He was thinking about how hard it was to set his alarm for 5 a.m. after closing up at Chipotle the night before. And about how, if he did make it to school, a teacher might see him and say dismissively, “Look who decided to show up today.”
“I wish someone gave me a reason to go to school,” Robinson said. After Mervo kicked him out, he says, he enrolled in an alternative high school. He’s now on track to graduate.
Chronic absentees aren’t only students who skip school. They also include students who are frequently suspended, who are home caring for family members or who are themselves sick.
Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency estimates that asthma caused nearly 14 million missed school days in 2013.
Dr. Kate Connor, the medical director at KIPP Academy's school-based health center, has seen it in Baltimore. Extreme weather or a common cold can send an asthmatic child to the emergency room. Some parents will keep children home on Code Red weather days out of fear they'll have asthma attacks at school.
"The sheer number of kids this impacts is huge," she said.
Baltimore’s chief academic officer Sean Conley said the district is looking more closely into absenteeism data, holding focus groups with students and developing ways to ensure kids come to school.
“How do we really combat this? It’s this collaboration of multiple offices at the district, collaboration with the school and with various partners to really identify these students,” he said. “Every student has a different story.”
Conley says many of the factors that lead to chronic absenteeism are beyond a school’s control, but he doesn’t take issue with including rates in the new accountability system. Improving school culture and climate make students want to show up every day, he says, and schools do have control over that.
But some of Baltimore’s problems continue to challenge school leaders, no matter what plans they implement.
Officials shut the aging Baltimore Metro system down for nearly a month this year for emergency repairs. Some 6,000 students rely on the Metro to get to school.
Jesse Schneiderman, who teaches at Frederick Douglass High School, says some of his students show up “every once in a while.” The reasons vary widely: Some are homeless. Others have children of their own to take care of, or work late and have trouble rising early for school.
Some just stop coming, and Schneiderman never learns why. Roughly nine out of 10 Douglass students are chronically absent, one of the highest rates in the state.
“We need the ability to support kids with different things going on,” he said. “We need to support kids who are pregnant, who have kids, who are caring for families. It’s still really hard to get to every kid who needs that help.”
About 400 students at Lansdowne High School in Baltimore County were chronically absent last year. That was nearly a third of the student body.
“What is the obstacle?” Principal Ken Miller asked. “You have to be able to identify the roadblock.”
Social studies teacher Kelly Olds says some students get discouraged and decide not to come to school. But more often her students are working during the day to help support their families, are taking care of sick siblings, or have trouble getting up early after working late.
Olds won’t slow down class for those who have fallen behind because they have missed days. She uses her lunch hour or stays after school instead to help students catch up.
Lansdowne is working to become a community school, where adults as well as children can get health and social services in addition to education.
“A lot of it is helping families see the value in education,” Olds said. “If they see more value to the school, then hopefully that will increase them coming to school.”
Some schools go to Herculean lengths to boost attendance.
Aye, the Woodlawn principal, has reduced her school’s chronic absenteeism rate from 55 percent in the 2016-17 school year to 41 percent this year. She’s aiming for another big drop next year.
The secret, she says, is to give students what they want.
She began an Early College program that allows students to graduate with college credits. Next year, Woodlawn will add heating, air-conditioning and plumbing classes, because students have told Aye they want to graduate with a skill that transfers to work immediately after graduation.
At Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, Principal Terry Patton discovered a few years ago that students were staying home because they didn’t have clean uniforms. She found a non-profit to donate a washer and dryer. The school had one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism in the city last year.
Federico Adams, principal of William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School, drives around Sandtown-Winchester every morning to wake students up.
When a student stops showing up and parents don’t say why, he makes a house call.
“I got Jane Doe, and haven’t seen her in a week and I haven’t heard from her family — I go to that house,” he said. “Are they not coming to school because they don’t have uniforms? Have they been evicted? What bridge do the parents need us to build so we can get the kid back in school?
“We find ourselves building more and more bridges of support.”