Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Battling Chronic Absenteeism

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Battling Chronic Absenteeism

Article excerpt

A New York elementary school made great strides in reducing chronic absenteeism. Here are the ups--and downs--of its story.

When Patricia Mitchell became principal of P.S. 48 Wordsworth in 2007, she discovered that her small elementary school in Jamaica, Queens, had one of the highest chronic absenteeism rates in the city. Serving a largely black and Hispanic community with lots of young, single parents, P.S. 48 had one-third of its students absent at least one day out of 10 that year. That attendance number was worse than in many low-income schools in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn--and almost unheard of in relatively well-off Queens.

Mitchell was taking over a school that had cycled through four leaders over the previous seven years. Her staff was demoralized. She looked at the poor attenders and wondered if her students and families were sending her a signal about the school. "I needed to get to know my kids," she recalls.

And that's what she did. A research team at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School followed Mitchell from 2011 to 2013 as she took on chronic absenteeism. During that period, Mitchell and her team drove down chronic absenteeism almost 10 percentage points, from an average of 26% in June 2011 to 17% in June 2012. P.S. 48 also climbed academically from the bottom 10% of the city to a respectable place in the middle of the pack, ascending from the 9th percentile in 2010-11 to the 48th percentile in 2012-13.

The story of how Mitchell achieved those results--and what happened in the aftermath when her absentee numbers began to creep up again--offers useful lessons for those working in high-poverty schools, which often are plagued by high rates of absenteeism. The center's research focused exclusively on elementary schools, where absenteeism is more often due to family issues than to students cutting class. But the strategies Mitchell used could be helpful in any school. "Your families have to learn that you care about this, and that you'll get them the support they need," Mitchell said. "And the kids have to buy in. They need to say, 'Mommy, I have to go to school.' " This can take a lot of time, she added, "but the personal touch helps."

The real cost of absenteeism

Educators and policy makers have historically overlooked absenteeism --an irony, given how much effort goes into improving schooling on the assumption that students are actually attending regularly. Researchers tend to view attendance as a fixed student trait, such as race or family income: They may find it useful for predicting how a child might do academically, but they don't see it as a tool for improving schools. School leaders have, of course, always been aware of student attendance, but tracking it was viewed mostly as paperwork. "Many principals have traditionally looked at attendance as an operational issue, like doing their budget," said Kim Suttell, who runs the New York City Department of Education's attendance programs.

Suttell is among a growing group of administrators who would like to see attendance take a more prominent role in school accountability. She argues that attendance is a particularly important piece of data for principals to track and analyze. If too many students miss too much school, the entire school will suffer. "How many chronically absent students can a school have and still maintain momentum?" she asked.

As Principal Mitchell discovered, absenteeism has been shown to be a strong predictor of academic success, both for individual students and the school. Our researchers at the Center for New York City Affairs analyzed student data on New York City's elementary and K-8 students over three academic years, from 2010-11 to 2012-13, looking at absenteeism and test scores. A school's rate of chronic absenteeism was more useful for predicting a school's test scores than other common measures, including the school's percentage of students in special education, English language learners, or students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. …

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