4/14/19 Why teachers and students are missing school — and what ABSS is doing about it
‘I don’t want to go’
Photos by Woody Marshall / Times-News
Children arrive at Jordan Elementary School on Friday.
Why teachers and students are missing school — and what ABSS is doing about it
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 4/14/19
Reprinted with permission.
A bulletin broad in the cafeteria at Jordan Elementary School keeps a record of how many 100 percent attendance days each class has each month.
Ferris Bueller encouraged us to take a day off every once in a while, but some Alamance-Burlington students — and their teachers — are doing it a little too often.
How is the school system battling chronic absenteeism? And what’s causing it in the first place?
First, let’s take a look at the state law:
North Carolina’s Compulsory Attendance Law says children between the ages of 7–16 must attend school. Any parent or guardian violating this law is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, which could result in a fine and/or community service.
To prevent this, schools are required to notify parents when students rack up three, six and 10 unexcused absences within the same school year.
Unexcused absences are generally categorized as any absence not caused by illness, a death in the family, an educational opportunity or a medical appointment, though principals can approve other extenuating circumstances.
Once a student accumulates 10 unexcused absences, the principal must determine if the parent has made a “good faith effort” to comply with the state’s attendance law. If they haven’t, legal consequences may ensue.
But, even in those cases, schools rarely take parents to court.
A new kind of truancy officer
Shaun Jenkins, social worker for Alexander Wilson and Jordan elementary schools, has taken only one parent to court in her four years in the position. It was an extreme case.
Most of the time, she said, parents are willing to work with the school and vice versa.
“You approach it as, ‘I’m not smacking you on the hand. We’re student support. We’re here to help address whatever’s going on that’s keeping your child from being at school.’ And you have to approach it that way,” Jenkins said. “You can’t approach it like, ‘Oh, you’ve got seven unexcused absences … if you continue on this path you’re going to have to go to court.’ I tread very lightly with that because I want them to know that I have to, by law, tell them about the whole process of court and the unexcused absences, but we’re going to make every effort to work with them as a team to eliminate this issue of poor attendance. You have to approach it that way to be successful with it.”
The stern truancy officer depicted in 20th century cartoons has been replaced by a student-support team made up of the school nurse, social worker, counselor, teacher and principal.
But if the sympathetic method doesn’t work, Jenkins will write a letter to the district attorney and keep it on file for one year. With the threat of court looming, parents usually straighten up and make sure their child comes to school.
“I’ve written one so far this year, and that parent was like, ‘What do I have to do’ to fix this?” Jenkins said.
What's causing chronic absenteeism?
|The tiger cub award for best attendance in March was won by Christina Whitesell’s 5th-grade class at Jordan Elementary School.|
But while she has the law on her side in the case of unexcused absences, there isn’t much she can do about chronic absenteeism, which is the bigger problem.
Students are defined as a “chronic absentees” when they miss more than 10 percent of the school year (around 18 days, or two days a month) for any reason — excused or otherwise.
Some students rack up absences playing hooky. But the key difference between Ferris Bueller and today’s students is that Ferris had to convince his parents he was sick to get the day off school. These days, kids simply say, “I don’t want to go,” and the parents lie for them.
“They let their kids rule them instead of them ruling their child,” Jenkins said. “That’s a very common issue because they pull on their parents’ heartstrings, and it works, especially in elementary school.”
Another common reason for chronic absenteeism is sickness, which occurs often at the elementary school level. Jenkins recently had a student accumulate 22 absences with 14 excused by a doctor’s note.
“I work very closely with the nurse because a lot of the attendance issues are all medical related,” Jenkins said. “And so there are big barriers with that and the fact that there’s just so much sickness.”
With increasing cases of asthma and diabetes in young children, that isn’t likely to change for the better any time soon.
And it isn’t only physical illness that leads to absences; it’s mental illness. Anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect student attendance, especially if a student doesn’t feel safe at school.
“When you have all of this mental illness and all of these other trauma-related things going on with kids — and we’re more aware and educated about it — those things do create barriers to coming to school,” Jenkins said.
In those cases, having someone meet with the student one-on-one and regularly check in with them is crucial.
“You have to know your population you’re dealing with and you have to know how to work with them,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s a huge piece, because some of the barriers may be that a kid doesn’t feel safe at school because of some anxiety there or they’re just not clicking with a teacher, and so having that conversation and sitting at the table and listening to this and trying to make that child feel more safe and more comfortable at school can be very relative in that process.”
The school system’s strained budget sometimes makes this difficult.
Jenkins serves as the social worker for two schools, giving her less time to focus on building relationships with students. And a lack of school-based mental health services leaves some kids without the help they need. While schools like Alexander Wilson have therapists available on a case-by-case basis, these providers don’t have the time to address the number of children who need help.
“Me as a social worker, I’m not here to do therapy with children. I’m here to assist with some barriers and to help kids work through some things, but I’m not a licensed therapist,” Jenkins said. “The counselor, that’s not their job either. Their job is not to do therapy with kids. And so having that mental health therapist come in and be able to do that, that has really eliminated some barriers, but the problem I’m finding now is the need is outweighing what the therapist can come in and do … and that service is so needed so that we’re being more successful in school.”
Chronic absenteeism is detrimental to student success, which is why more school districts are tracking it alongside truancy (unexcused absences).
The carrot or the stick
Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015–2016, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That marked an increase of more than 800,000 since 2013–2014.
According to data from Attendance Works, missing more than 15 days in elementary school can result in students falling behind in reading and math, leading to a years-long struggle to catch up. By sixth grade, chronic absenteeism becomes an indicator of whether or not a student will finish high school.
To encourage regular attendance, Jenkins has turned to incentives.
She leads monthly competitions between classes and grade levels, and has issued attendance punch cards that require students to come to school for a certain number of days in a row to receive small prizes. Her last punch card period was in March. With spring break so late in the year — and not a single teacher workday or snow day in sight — March was the perfect month to play hooky, and therefore the perfect month to offer incentives to come to school.
While prizes and praise certainly help, one of the biggest influences on student attendance is their teachers.
That’s why some principals require them to contact parents when one of their students misses class. It can help reinforce the idea that missing school means missing valuable instructional time, but it also shows they care.
And caring is badly needed, particularly at the high school level.
Skipping senior skip day
Armani Graves, student council president at Cummings High School, found that many of her classmates miss school because they’re tired or bored, and they feel like their teacher won’t notice.
On average, only 87.16 percent of Cummings students came to school regularly in March, compared to 93.93 percent of students at Alexander Wilson Elementary School.
But it isn’t just Cummings. Attendance rates at all six ABSS high schools are lower than elementary and middle school averages, and absences begin occurring as soon as the second month of school.
In February, Graves surveyed around 40 students — 20 underclassmen and 20 upperclassmen — about why they missed school. Common responses were:
• “I needed a day off”
• “It’s boring”
• “I was tired”
• “It’s the same thing everyday”
• “The food is nasty”
• “I wasn’t prepared for a test”
• “I don’t have a ride”
• “My teacher won't notice”
• “I don’t have the encouragement at home”
Some responses were specific to the student’s grade level.
“So freshman, they have reasons like they don’t really like their teacher or they don’t like the food,” Graves said Tuesday. “With seniors, some of them have ‘senioritis,’ and there’s not much you can really do about that. Some seniors said they feel like they’ve been learning the same thing for four years, and they feel like nothing is different, so they feel like there should be a new way of teaching each grade level.”
Incorporating visual elements, engaging activities, field trips and student teaching into lessons would help battle apathy, she said, and she added that her Spanish teacher, Herlinda Canedo-Sosa, does a good job of keeping students on their toes.
But the biggest impact comes from having a meaningful relationship with someone at school, which is why Graves serves on Leaders Influencing Freshman Empowerment, a group of upperclassmen mentors who coach freshmen on issues like studying, making friends and regular attendance. The hope is that early intervention will stop them from falling too far behind.
“Most of the time I tell them that when you’re not coming to school you’re missing a lot of material and then can’t pass the class, and then you’ve got to double-up and take that class again,” she said. “I just tell them the steps of what this little mistake is leading to. It’s something that’s easily fixed.”
Graves plans to attend N.C. Central University in the fall, where she’ll major in education. Superintendent Bruce Benson already has a teaching contract reserved for when she graduates.
What about teachers?
It isn’t only students amassing double-digit absences.
In 2013-2014, 1,302 ABSS certified staff members (74 percent) had 11 or more absences on days school was in session.
By 2017-2018, the number had fallen to 750 — certainly better, but still a concern, especially since most of these absences occurred on either Mondays or Fridays. And the number of teachers missing school varied across the district.
At some schools, nearly 90 percent of certified staff members were included in this category. At others, the percentage was as low as 19 percent.
School climate — otherwise defined as the quality and character of life at school — greatly affects teacher attendance, but it’s also heavily influenced by principals since they approve teachers’ time off.
There are three common types of leave:
Sick leave: Full-time teachers earn one sick day a month. In more complicated cases, they may be eligible for extended sick leave.
Annual leave: Depending on how long they’ve been with the system, teachers earn 11.7–21.7 annual leave days per academic year. These days can be used only when students are not in school. For example, if a teacher wanted to be paid for a snow day, he or she would use annual leave.
Personal leave: Full-time teachers earn two hours a month of personal leave, which means it takes five months to build up one day. This can be used on a student day, but incurs a $50 deduction in pay.
Sick leave rolls over from year to year and can be accumulated indefinitely. Annual leave can be accumulated up to 30 days. Anything beyond that is converted to sick leave. And personal leave can be accumulated up to five days. Anything beyond that is also converted to sick leave.
According to Human Resources Director Dawn Madren, part of the reason teachers had more than 11 absences is this accumulation.
“For those employees that have been around awhile and have accrued their leave, in some cases, they [might say], ‘Well, I have the leave and I have a justifiable reason, so why is it a big deal?’ But … if there’s a pattern, especially if it’s falling on a Friday and a Monday, have the conversation with the person in terms of, ‘We’ve noted that, thus far, you’ve been absent so many days, and I really need you here for us to have the impact on instruction.’ Sometimes it’s just bringing it to the person’s attention that their boss is aware of it as well,” Madren said.
Central Office began collecting teacher attendance data and holding principals responsible for it at the beginning of the 2018–2019 school year. So far, only 150 certified staff members have accumulated 11 or more absences. At some schools, none of the teachers falls into that category.
Superintendent Bruce Benson explained the strategy behind the change last month during Alamance Citizens for Education’s 2019 Education Summit.
“All we did was call it out,” Benson said. “We said, ‘Look, this is not appropriate, and as building-level leaders, you have a responsibility to make sure your school is staffed, and just because somebody put in a request to have the day off doesn’t mean you have to grant having the day off.’ You’ve got to look at that total picture, and just bringing that to principals’ attention, … we’re in a better place than we were a year ago.”
Awareness is half the battle.