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Devin D. Thorpe

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Back-to-School Means Chronic Absenteeism for Many Poor Kids

Today’s New York Times Op-Ed by Communities In Schools President Shines Light on Viable Solution

Nationally, as many as one out of 10 students miss 10 percent of the school year in excused and unexcused absences every year. Yet, too often chronic absence remains a hidden problem because schools track only average daily attendance and truancy (unexcused absences.)

The research shows that chronic absence predicts lower 3rd grade reading proficiency, course failure and eventual dropout. The impact hits low-income students particularly hard, especially if they don’t have the resources to make up for lost time in the classroom and are more likely to face barriers to getting to school, such as unreliable transportation and chronic health issues.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times by the President of Communities In Schools (CIS), Daniel J. Cardinali, sheds light on this issue and what can be done about it.

“For 16 million kids living below the federal poverty line, the start of a new school year should be reason to celebrate,” begins the piece. “Summer is no ‘vacation’ when parents are working multiple jobs or looking for one. Many kids are left to fend for themselves in neighborhoods full of gangs, drugs and despair. Given the hardships at home, poor kids might be expected to have the best attendance record of anyone, just for the promise of a hot meal and an orderly classroom, if nothing else. But, it doesn’t usually work out that way.”

Operating in more than 2,200 schools in the most challenged communities in 26 states and the District of Columbia, Communities In Schools serves 1.3 million young people and their families every year. As the nation’s leading dropout prevention organization, CIS is the only one proven to both decrease dropout rates and increase graduation rates.

The op-ed describes one third-grade girl’s situation in particular, who missed 25 days of school the first semester. When a CIS counselor visited her home, they found “ten people living in the student’s two-bedroom apartment, including a mother with untreated mental health issues. The little girl often got lost in the shuffle, with no clean clothes to wear and no one to track her progress.” CIS bought her new uniforms and found additional resources for her family. As her home life stabilized, the absences all but stopped in the second semester, and the student was promoted to the fourth grade.

This approach – bringing a trained social worker onto the administrative team of every school with a large number of poor kids, says Cardinali, is effective and affordable: at Communities In Schools, 75 percent of our case-managed students show improved attendance and 99 percent stay in school.

“Like putting a social worker inside a hospital emergency room, social workers in the school setting are a low-cost way of avoiding bigger problems down the road. It’s a common-sense solution will still require a measure of political courage – something that all too often has been chronically absent,” the op-ed concludes.

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