Many of us may take regular school attendance for granted. Our parents/supportive guardians were present and available for us every morning to ensure that we were awake, adequately prepared, and off to school. In my household, school attendance was a non-negotiable; my immediate family, extended family, and larger community of support explicated valued our education as expressed through minimizing the number of both unexcused and excused absences for all of us village children.
However, this is not the reality for many of the children we serve. One of the schools hosting Communities In Schools of Tennessee at Nashville accumulated a 33% chronic absenteeism rate. Nearly 1/3 of the students in that school missed 18 or more days during the course of the 2015-16 academic year. To put this in perspective, a middle schooler who misses, on average, 2 days of school per month has a 63% likelihood of graduating. Furthermore, students who are chronically absent are 7.4x more likely to drop out of school than their non-chronically absent peers. Ask any teacher juggling curriculum rigor, with testing schedules, and ongoing non-academic demands: attendance matters.
I am reminded of a compelling story about one of our scholars who, although registered for school, had already missed 10 days before the end of the first quarter. Per the school’s policy, due to her number of absences this scholar was now in danger of being permanently removed from the school’s roster. Our Site Coordinator, advocated to have the decision postponed, allowing time for CIS to locate the family of the missing in action scholar. It was discovered that the student and her family were homeless, without transportation, mom was without telephone access and many nights they slept too far away from the school for the student to arrive on time. Within a week, through the diligent work of a dedicated caring adult, the student and her family were connected to the HERO program (a District initiative to support students with housing insecurity), bus passes were issued to assist with transportation and a comprehensive academic intervention plan was put in place with the support of the teachers to ensure that this scholar was able to catch up on her school work. Were we able to solve the family’s housing issues? No. BUT we did: 1. Choose to understand the root cause of the problem 2. Connect the scholar and family with community resources 3. Provide a caring adult, on the grown, to make sure one more student did not fall through the crack.
As Attendance Awareness Month comes to a close, we here at CISTN are reminded that early and impactful intervention can make a world of difference for our scholars facing a variety of barriers. Our team has intentionally focused on shifting the conversation with our families regarding attendance. Often times removing the punitive reprimands and negative stigma attached to corrective action communications is the launching point for positive, open relationship building. In our attempt to provide our scholars with a community of support, we have to first understand what the real challenges and barriers are that exist, not assign a previously designated band-aid to the problem.