UPPER MARLBORO — With 15 percent of students in the U.S. being chronically absent from school and Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) students nearly twice that amount, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explored reasons for such high rates and solutions in a recently published study on chronic absenteeism and its link to student health.
“Chronic school absenteeism, starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, puts students at risk for poor school performance and school dropout, which in turn, put them at risk for unhealthy behaviors as adolescents and young adults as well as poor long-term health outcomes,” said the AAP study entitled “The Link Between School Attendance and Good Health.”
A student is considered chronically absent when they miss at least 18 days, or 10 percent, of school days for the school year. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ most recent data says that about eight million public school students from around the country were considered chronically absent during the 2015-2016 school year.
According to The Hamilton Project, an economic research group and think tank within the Brookings Institution, compared to the national average of 15 percent, about 20 percent of students in Maryland are chronically absent and in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), that number amounts to 28.5 percent of students.
Although chronically absent students can be considered truant, or willfully missing school for unexcused reasons, the AAP says we tend to ignore students who may miss excessive amounts of schools due to factors they cannot control.
“When we talk about absenteeism, there are three or four big buckets of why students are chronically absent,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing student success and reducing equity gaps by reducing chronic absence.
The first is usually barriers, Chang said, such as health or lack of a stable community. Second is a child’s negative school experience. The third is that they may feel as though school is not an engaging enough place for them; they feel it will not get them to a different future and finally, they may be given misconceptions about school life from family members who had a negative experience with school.
The AAP additionally lists factors such as feeling unsafe at school due to bullying, family responsibilities such as having to watch a younger sibling or care for an ill adult, housing instability, transportation difficulties or involvement with the juvenile justice system.
“We feel like you really need to understand its barriers, is it negative experiences, is it lack of engaging school experiences or is it misconceptions because what your strategy needs to be has to actually be tailored to your knowledge of what the biggest factors that are causing kids to miss school,” Chang said.
A significant factor often overlooked is poor health. The AAP said in their study that absences could quickly add up and lead to chronic absenteeism if a child experiences multiple health conditions, unrecognized or undertreated conditions or lack of access to care. These can include disabilities, chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes and mental health conditions.
Along with Attendance Works, The Healthy Schools Campaign is another nonprofit working to bring awareness to the connection between student health and absence in the DMV area. As part of this mission, the Healthy Schools Campaign launched an initiative called Here + Healthy to raise awareness and lower absence rates.
“The very specific goal of Here + Healthy is to let people know that this important information is now publically available in their school report card and to help them understand why it is so important and what the connection is, what is the implications of student absenteeism, what is the connection to student health and really to empower schools and communities to really work together to make sure students are healthy and in school and ready to learn,” said President and CEO Rochelle Davis.
According to the AAP, chronic absenteeism is more of a problem from kindergarten to first grade where at least 10 percent of these students miss a month or more of the school year. Absenteeism begins to increase again in middle and high school where about 19 percent of the students become chronically absent.
“So traditionally we really thought about chronic absenteeism more as truancy and something that impacted older students,” Davis said. “Part of this work that we’re doing with our partners, Attendance Works and others, to really change the narrative so that schools no longer blame parents and criminalize kids but how they can really support students and their families.”
According to the AAP, there are a number of approaches schools can take to reduce the amount of chronically absent students and part of that begins on a school policy level around addressing why students are absent, keeping them in school and ensuring their learning is affected as little as possible.
PGCPS recently underwent an audit, conducted by auditing firm Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services, which intended to investigate claims of falsifying grades to increase graduation rates. However, one of the findings of the audit was that the PGCPS grading system lacks specifications for grading students with an excessive number of lawful absences.
School nurses can look at student health as a reason for absences being a major influence on how many kids with illnesses will opt to come to school instead of staying home because of it.
Although another area where PGCPS is lacking, they had 28 vacancies in school nurses in November according to Chief of Special Education and Student Services Gwendolyn Mason, the school system is working to address the issue.
Additionally, schools can create a healthy environment with the implementation of school-based health centers and in-school mental health care as well as strong communication with parents and encouraging parent involvement in their child’s school life.
“I think in general, creating a supportive school climate that supports well-being and is a positive, healthy place to be where kids don’t want to avoid being there,” Davis said.