Report finds chronic absenteeism a problem in Michigan schools

GRPS a success story as state struggles

MICHIGAN - At 660 schools in the state of Michigan, more than 30% of the students are chronically absent, according to a newly released report  on chronic absenteeism in the nation's schools.

That number — which represents 19% of all schools in Michigan — puts the state well above the national average for the percent of schools with extreme levels of chronic absenteeism. The national average is 11%.

"When that high of a level of churn is happening, it's both affecting the kids who are chronically absent, but it's also affecting the ability of the school and the teacher to create a meaningful educational experience," said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.

Her national organization, which works to promote the importance of attendance, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education released the report late Friday to coincide with Attendance Awareness Month, recognized every September.

Researchers used data from the 2013-14 school year that was compiled by the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection.

While calling attention to what Chang described as a "significant challenge," for many schools, the report also highlights success — 12 school districts that have worked to reduce the number of days students are missing. Grand Rapids Public Schools is among the success stories, having reduced its rate of chronic absenteeism by 25% in the past three years, in part because the district launched a community-wide effort. 

All students are affected by chronic absenteeism, Chang said, because it often forces teachers to have to repeat instruction for students who missed class, and also because mastering so many lessons is dependent on having mastered previous lessons.

"It has serious consequences," Chang said.

The federal civil rights data defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days or more in a school year whether those days out are excused or unexcused. Attendance Works, though, says chronic absence should be defined as missing 10% of school. That would equal 18 days in a school with a 180-day school year.

Michigan will be using the latter definition when it begins using chronic absenteeism as a metric to evaluate engagement in the learning process. It is part of the state's plan for complying with the federal education law. 

"These metrics are based on the recognition that learner success depends on being fully present and engaged in the learning environment," said Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the MIchigan Department of Education.

Lawmakers in the state have enacted or are considering laws that would address absenteeism, including legislation that would prohibit a student from being suspended for truancy, define truancy and chronically absent, and require a school to take certain actions if a child is truant or chronically absent.

A law that went into effect in August requires schools to consider other alternatives to discipline than suspending or expelling a student, which would reduce the amount of time students are missing class.

Meanwhile, the MDE is working closely with school districts that have high rates of chronic absenteeism, including the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The federal data puts the district's rate at 58%. Part of the work includes helping those schools with issues related to school climate, health and suspension. 

The report notes that chronic absenteeism is worse in schools with large percentages of low-income students.

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or @LoriAHiggins

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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