Every year, an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million U.S. students miss enough school to be at severe risk of dropping out or failing to graduate from high school. According to a report by Johns Hopkins University School of Education researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz, chronic absenteeism in American schools is a largely unnoticed and unmeasured problem. Conducted with support from the Get Schooled Foundation, the report found that only a few states measure and report on chronic absenteeism.
But how many absences are too many? Research shows that missing 10 percent of the school year is the tipping point. That is roughly about 18 days in a school year – or just two days a month. And according to the report, students who are chronically absent in one year will likely be so in subsequent years and may miss more than half a year of school over four or five years.
Latino students are at higher risk of chronic absenteeism due to factors associated with low-income families. Problems with transportation, chronic illness due to poor diet and lack of access to health care, as well as schedule conflicts with a parent’s job, can all contribute to a student’s absence from school.
Part of the problem is that many parents don’t realize how quickly the absences add up, or how crucial it is for their child not to miss school. Kindergarten students especially suffer academically in the years to come if they miss too much school. The elementary years are critical for laying the foundation and developing the skills children need in order to read fluently by 4th grade and excel in later grades. Children who struggle to read are at higher risk of dropping out as they get older.
This month, the non-profit organization, Attendance Works has launched the first Attendance Awareness Month, an initiative to get the word out to communities about the importance of attendance and its role in academic achievement. Their site offers a range of free handouts and banners in both English and Spanish explaining the importance of showing up for school, as well as videos, infographics, and even a toolkit for planning an event in your community.
So what can parents do to ensure their children attend school regularly?
1. Establish basic routines: Set bedtime and morning routines. For younger children, lay out clothes and pack backpacks the night before. Create a checklist and let your child check off tasks. For older students, have a plan for finishing homework on time and getting to bed about the same time each night.
2. Teach your children that attendance is important and show them you mean it: Don’t plan medical or dental appointments during the school day or take extended trips when school is in session. Don’t let children stay home unless they are truly sick. Keep in mind that complaints of a stomach ache or headache can sometimes be a sign that your child is anxious about something at school.
3. Talk to your child: If your children seem reluctant to go, find out why and work with teachers, counselors, or afterschool providers to figure out how to get them excited about school.
4. Develop backup plans for getting to school. Identify who you can turn to – another family member, a neighbor, or fellow parents – to help you get your children to school if something comes up.
5. Reach out for help if you are experiencing tough times. Problems with transportation, housing, jobs or your child’s or your health can make it hard to get your children to school. Remember that school officials, after school providers, doctors and community agencies can help.
Monica Olivera Hazelton, NBC Latino contributor and the founder and publisher of MommyMaestra.com, a site for Latino families that homeschool, as well as families with children in a traditional school setting who want to take a more active role in their children’s education. She is the 2011 winner of the “Best Latina Education Blogger” award by LATISM.