Chronically absent students are more likely to come to school if treated with compassion than threatened with truancy.
That’s what a national expert on attendance policy said Monday at an absenteeism summit for educators convened by the United Way of Greater Kansas City.
“Truancy has typically been about ensuring compliance with compulsory ed law – you need to show up, and if you don’t show up, we’ll threaten you with legal action,” said Hedy Chang, director of the California-based Attendance Works. “When kids miss a lot of school, they are academically at risk, and what we need to start with is not saying what’s wrong with you, but what happened and how can we support you?”
A student is considered “chronically absent” if they miss more than 10 percent of the academic year, or 18 days of school. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education wants 90 percent of students in school 90 percent of the time. The state’s accountability system penalizes districts that fall short of that goal.
But that’s not the only reason districts want to improve attendance. Students who attend class inconsistently usually end up falling behind. They perform worse on state tests and are more likely to drop out than their peers who go to school every day. That’s why Kansas City Public Schools has been trying to improve attendance for a few years now.
Mentoring is one of the strategies that’s working. At Banneker Elementary, only 47 percent of students made it to school 90 percent of the time during the 2016-17 school year. Last year, after launching Success Mentors, 84 percent of students were at school 90 percent of the time.
“Mentors figure out the barriers to student success,” said KCPS assistant superintendent Derald Davis. “If students are not showing up to school, none of our other programs can work.”
Chang, the national attendance expert, said KCPS is ahead of the curve on combating chronic absenteeism.
“I will also say that Kansas City, like many metro areas, there are big challenges facing families in poverty, and in some ways, those challenges have only grown,” Chang said. “The numbers are starting to improve, but slowly.”
Chang said it helps if community anti-poverty organizations – many of whom attended Monday’s summit – are also involved in making sure students get to school so they can learn.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.