Addressing Chronic Absenteeism: Then & Now

Chronic absenteeism has been a challenge in St. Joseph, Missouri for over 150 years. It was first identified as a barrier to learning back in 1865 by the first Superintendent of Schools, Edward B. Neely. In his first annual report, he identified irregular attendance as a major obstacle for the community.

ABSENTEEISM
Mr. Neely deplored the practice of many parents keeping their children home for trivial reasons: “They are apt to think the loss of a day or half day is a small matter, but he (the student) returns to school and finds some fundamental principle has been explained to the class. As a consequence, his recitations are a miserable failure” (Foley, Johnson & Lentz, 1993). Neely further contended that “should the practice become a habit, the student would soon become discouraged because he could not keep pace with the class and shortly he would become a mere drone in the educational beehive” (Foley, Johnson & Lentz, 1993). Another serious problem was the short period of attendance by many students. Mr. Neely sternly cautioned that: “education was not acquired in a day and that they (the parents) should be willing to make great sacrifices to enable their children to attend the schools a sufficient length of time to gain some practical benefit” (Foley, Johnson & Lentz, 1993).

TARDINESS
Student attendance and tardiness remained a challenge by the publication of Mr. Neely’s nineteenth Annual Superintendent Report in 1882-83: If I thought that it would accomplish any good, or produce any effect in the right direction, I would like to reiterate and emphasize what I have heretofore said on the subject of tardiness. It is mortifying to record the fact that out of an enrollment of 4,599 the past year, there were 6,920 cases of tardiness” (Neely, 1884, pg. 39). “Want of punctuality is one of the crying vices and evils of the day. It seems to pervade all occupations, to vitiate all engagements. It is a selfish vice whose very corner stone is selfishness” (Neely, 1884, pg. 39). “Everywhere, and under almost every conceivable circumstance, this selfish monster of impunctuality seems to hold in his grasp the adult population. The only way to eradicate the great evil is to educate the rising generation to habits of promptness and regularity. This our teachers are endeavoring to do, and I regret to say that for their efforts in this direction they receive more censure than encouragement” (Neely, 1884, pg. 40).

TRUANCY
In his thirty-fourth Annual Superintendent Report in 1897-1898, Mr. Neely (1899) addressed a growing concern of truancy in St. Joseph: “I regret to have to report that there were 254 cases of truancy among our pupils last year. A reference to one of the preceding tables will show in what proportion these cases were distributed among the several schools. In many states they have truant, officers in the cities and towns whose business it is to arrest truants on the streets and compel them to attend school. In the absence of any such provision here, parents should cooperate by every means in their power with the teachers in their efforts to suppress this flagrant vice at its first appearance. There is nothing more demoralizing to a boy and degrading in its effects than this habit of truancy. It makes him a coward, a liar and an associate of bad characters. His moral sense seems to be absolutely blunted, so that no impression whatever can be made upon him. When the habit gets firmly fixed in him, it is almost impossible to eradicate it. Neither moral suasion, nor the severest punishment can reform him. The Reform school is the only school suitable for him, and the chances are that he will graduate from it to the jail and the penitentiary. Let parents and teachers exercise every means to nip it in the bud, for, if it becomes a habit, my experience and observation both teach me that all efforts for its suppression will then be too late” (Neely, 1899, page 13).

PRESENT DAY
‪Fast forward to the modern era and similar challenges remain. A distribution of 2016-17 proportional attendance rates from Missouri school districts is provided below. The red line on the graph represents where the attendance rate in St. Joseph fell among the 559 school districts. At 83.99%, St. Joseph ranked 516 out of 559.

Many of these school districts are significantly smaller than St. Joseph. To better understand our attendance status in Missouri, it may be helpful to compare attendance rates with other large school districts. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE, 2017), the St. Joseph School District is the 18th largest district in the state with an enrollment of 11,300 students. Among the school districts with student enrollments exceeding 10,000 students, St. Joseph ranked 17 out of 20.

So what is proportional attendance and why does it matter so much? Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education began requiring districts to track attendance at the individual student level (the percent of students attending 90% of the time) rather than by aggregate attendance rates (average attendance of all students). This policy was informed by the considerable research about chronic absenteeism, or whenever a student misses more than 10% of the school year.

WHY ATTENDANCE MATTERS
150 years ago, Mr. Neely didn’t have the benefit of today’s research to affirm his commitment to regular school attendance. It’s striking that even without the distractions of the 21st century, irregular attendance or chronic absenteeism, was an issue in his day. So why the all the fuss about attendance? Why is this such a timeless concern for communities and St. Joseph in particular?

No significant amount of learning occurs without a trusting relationship between student and teacher. Regular attendance supports the formation of these critical relationships with instructional staff and peers. It may sound like common sense, but you can’t learn if you don’t show up. Research has consistently found that patterns of attendance predict achievement. In fact, regular attendance throughout the primary grades (K-3) is highly predictive of future academic success.

When a student reads below grade level by the end of grade 3, the likelihood of not graduating from high school increases significantly. Data from the 2016-17 school year indicates a significant impact from absenteeism on literacy development and mathematical understanding in grades 3-8. The relationship between attendance and student outcomes continues throughout grades 9-12. Analysis of data from the Class of 2017 showed a relationship between a student’s academic proficiency and their absenteeism rate. The relationship between student performance on the ACT and their absenteeism rate showed the same trend overall.

While it may not resonate as much for parents of young children, employability skills matters greatly to the parents of teens. These habits are formed early on (grades K-8) and regular attendance helps establish work-ready traits such as responsibility, initiative, and self-discipline. Education opens and closes doors throughout life. It is related to a student’s earning potential. Regular attendance during the K-12 years supports a mindset of life-long learning and a successful transition to post-secondary education. Earning potential determines many things throughout life including housing, employment and overall quality of life. Every day a student attends school is a direct investment in their future.

RECENT TRENDS
Over the past four years, 83.9% of students have attended school at least 90% of the time in St. Joseph. This percentage placed the St. Joseph School District’s attendance in the bottom 7% of all Missouri districts during that time for a ranking of 518 out of 559 districts and reporting agencies. The majority of school districts meet the annual attendance target of 90% in Missouri. In fact, nearly 59% of school districts achieved proportional attendance rates of 90% or better in 2016-17.

While it may seem logical that absenteeism is a greater concern at the secondary level, that is not the case. Historical rates of absenteeism by grade level show a high rate of absenteeism in grades K-3 in St. Joseph, which perpetuates and widens achievement gaps between students.

GOAL-SETTING
To address these concerns, a dialogue was opened with community groups about chronic absenteeism. Through the shared efforts of the United Way, Chamber of Commerce, Buchanan County Prosecuting Attorney, Social Welfare Board, Mosaic Life Care, and the St. Joseph School District, attendance became a topic of discussion in St. Joseph. Attendance at the high school level was included as part of a report to the school board on January 23, 2017. Additional information was shared with the community during the spring and summer through social media, blogs, and the local media.

On August 14, the St. Joseph School District launched an attendance initiative to combat the longstanding issue of chronic absenteeism. The initiative, known as “Strive for 5” is part of a strategic attendance improvement plan developed by district staff during the 2016-17 school year. Informed by the practices of high performing school districts in Missouri and recommendations from Attendance Works, the Strive for 5 initiative was designed to educate parents, students and community members on the effects of chronic absence and to establish a goal of less than five days absent per school year. This is not a one-year commitment from the district. In the years that come, the district is taking a multi-faceted approach towards identifying, understanding and eliminating underlying issues that feed chronic absence. Updates have been shared with stakeholders at www.strivefor5stjoe.com since the initiative’s launch.

On December 8, an analysis of chronic absenteeism by grade level and school was shared online. This update reported a reduction of absenteeism in grades K-12 with significant reductions in grades 4, 8, 9, and 11. Through the efforts of students, parents, teachers, and the community, we are pleased to report that 89.7% of students have attended school 90% of the time through the first 84 days of the 2017-18 school year. The chart below shows annual attendance rates in the St. Joseph School District since the 2010-11 school year.

While absenteeism has been a challenge for over 150 years, it’s no match for a community that is committed to partnering for the good of students. Positive change would not be possible without the collaborative efforts of students, staff, parents, and community. Thanks to everyone’s efforts and support, we are beginning to show the rest of the state the resolve, grit, and promise of our students and the community as a whole.

 

REFERENCES

Foley, J., Johnson, B., & Lentz, D. (1993). The public schools of St. Joseph, Missouri: A chronological history.

Hubbuch, C. (2017). Intentional Forestry. From Inquiry to Results.

St. Joseph Board of Education. (1884). Nineteenth annual report of the board of public schools, of the city of St. Joseph, MO.

St. Joseph Board of Education. (1899). Thirty-fourth annual report of the board of public schools, of the city of St. Joseph, MO.

St. Joseph School District. (2017). Student attendance: Proportional and aggregate rates.

St. Joseph School District. (2017). Archived news about “Strive for 5”. Links to articles from KQ2.com, the St. Joseph Post, and the St. Joseph News-Press.