For the 2016-2017 school year, Howard County had the lowest rate of chronic student absenteeism in the state, under 10 percent, according to data from the State Department of Education.
About 57,000 students attend county public schools and 9.1 percent of them were absent at least 10 percent of school days.
Nearly one in five Maryland students — 18.3 percent — was chronically absent last year, the data show.
Howard County sets the same attendance expectation for all students, regardless of their age, according to the county’s policy on attendance. The policy on chronic absences includes excused and unexcused days out of the classroom. Examples of excused absences include illness, bereavement and suspension. An unexcused absence is anything that does not fall under the excused category.
“We try to take attendance case-by-case,” said Restia Whitaker, coordinator for pupil support services. “Absenteeism can happen for different reasons ...you want to make sure you get an understanding for each story.
“There are a number of things to keep in mind,” including families who have experienced tremendous loss or face financial hardships, Whitaker said.
The school system takes a collaborative approach between administrators, partners from the community, student support team members, teachers, the parents and the student to address attendance needs, Whitaker said.
The school system’s problem-solving support group, the Instruction Intervention Team and Student Support Team, develops attendance improvements plans for students, according to the attendance policy.
In more extreme cases, students can be referred to Project Attend, a program focused on improving a student’s attendance rate.
“We are at the end of the road,” said Melissa Montgomery, an assistant state’s attorney and liaison for Project Attend.
Implemented in 2002, Project Attend has partnerships with prosecutors, the Howard County Department of Juvenile Justice, the Howard County Circuit Court and other community organizations to raise awareness of the consequences associated with chronic absenteeism and habitual truancy.
About 200 students have participated in the program since 2002, according to Jahantab Siddiqui, chief communications officer for the school system.
“Each year’s Project Attend’s success rate has ranged in the high 70 to 80th percentile in improved attendance,” Siddiqui said.
Montgomery said she meets with parents to discuss issues the family may be facing and what resources schools can provide. She also informs the families of potential criminal charges and fines that parents of the chronically absent child face.
“For every day the child is unlawfully absent there is a fine and up to 10 days of incarnation,” Montgomery said. “Under Maryland law, we can file one charge of failing to send a child to school for each day the child was unlawfully absent.” The fine is $50 per day, according to the attendance policy.
However, for the project’s meetings that Montgomery has attended, families did not face criminal charges.
Project Attend is a support measure for the school system but it is used as a last intervention measure, Siddiqui said.
Siddiqui credits a high level of community collaboration—between school administration, counselors, staff, teachers, county partners and parents — for the low absentee rate.
The school system also supports students and families overcome challenges that could prevent a student from attending school with the Community, Parent and School Outreach executive director position that is associated with Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano’s Strategic Call to Action and community superintendent positions.
Whitaker stressed the importance of supporting chronically absent children and their families and not depicting them as being a problem. Having dialogues and engaging with the student is important. One critical aspect is having teachers or staff members make a call to the student’s home saying, “We missed Johnny because he is a contributor to the classroom,” Whitaker said.
“We want them [the students] to see the benefit of coming to school.”
Baltimore City 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.
With reporting from The Baltimore Sun’s Liz Bowie.