iStock school building
Under President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, billions of tax dollars have been spent “reforming” public education. Their efforts include the Race to the Top ($4.35 billion all by itself), charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, the Common Core-related online assessments, charter schools, Teacher Improvement Grants and on and on. The result: Student performance still lags and teacher morale has plummeted.

Meanwhile, not on the reform agenda are the effects of poverty, inadequate parenting, rampant absenteeism, and truancy on schooling. And, although September was Attendance Awareness Month, it went pretty much unnoticed.

The bottom line: Kids can’t learn if not in class, and absences, in turn, negatively affect grades, standardized test scores,behavior, graduation rates, and more. As the Center for American Progress puts it: “Education has long been seen as the means to prosperity, but that only happens if students attend school.”

And apparently large numbers of them are staying away. In fact, of the some 50 million kids enrolled in our country’s public schools, 5 to 7.5 million are “chronically absent.” In other words, they miss 20 days or more every year.

Writes The Washington Post’s Emma Brown: “The nation’s large and persistent achievement gaps are rooted in a largely hidden crisis of chronic absenteeism from school, especially among low income and minority children.”

Moreover, it starts at a surprisingly young age. As Attendance Works reports, about 10% of kindergartners miss at least 18 days of school. That translates to almost an entire month of their first-ever public school year.

That same report found that, “Poor attendance is among our first and best warning signs that a student has missed the on-ramp to school success and is headed off track for graduation…”
Seems the powers might have missed such reports.

Meanwhile, in addition to impacting poor academic achievement and the dropout rate, the American Bar Association’s Youth at Risk Commission finds that truancy is associated with:

• Increased odds of first-time substance abuse and middle school drug use starting with marijuana.
• Higher rates of daytime crimes, such as vandalism and assaults.
• The likelihood of nonviolent and violent offenses by the young.
• Teen pregnancies

Such findings have now prompted superintendents around the country to join forces and sign Attendance Works’ Call to Action. Acknowledging that up to 7.5 million children miss nearly a month of school every year, they say they are:

1. “Prioritizing Attendance: We are making reducing chronic absence a top priority in our district from the superintendent to the teachers, from the school staff to the families.
2. Mobilizing the Community: We are making student attendance a broadly owned and widely shared civic priority. That includes engaging families and tapping civic and elected leaders, local businesses, health providers, housing authorities, clergy members, and more.
3. Driving with Data: We are using data to determine how many and which students are chronically absent in each grade, school, and population. And we are intervening to ensure absences don’t add up.”

Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, so far only Ken Cherry, head of the Dover Area School District, and Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Linda Lane have reportedly joined the movement. That’s right; just two and neither hails from Philadelphia where about 15,000 of its students miss school each day—50% of them without an excuse!

In fact, in the 2014-15 school year, more than 11,700 Philadelphia students were truant, with 37% of them (4,332) in grades K-8.

Meanwhile, research conducted by the Philadelphia Education Fund and Johns Hopkins University, in conjunction with the district, found that kids who attend less than 80% of the time stand only a 10% to 20% chance of graduating on time.

And here’s another Philly fact: 40% of all of its students drop out, and, currently, it’s on-time graduation rate stands at just 65%, up from 2008’s lowly 58%.

Plus, more bad news awaits. That’s because, back in 2008, then Governor Rendell called for Graduation Competency Assessments—actually ten of them. These ultimately morphed into the three Keystone Exams covering biology, algebra I, and literature. Implementation kicks in as a graduation requirement in the 2016-17 school year, with a recent district report suggesting that only 22% of the Class of 2017 will, therefore, graduate on time.

No wonder, then, that Philly schools are “expected to make significant and sufficient efforts to curb truancy” by:

• Conferencing with caregivers after no more than three unexcused absences
• Engaging all of a school’s social and academic supports along the way to the tenth unexcused absence
• Having ten unexcused absences lead to Truancy Court where children and their families appear before a Master and ultimately before a judge if attendance doesn’t improve, every 60 to 90 days to review and report on progress.
• Having truancy case managers, together with community-based providers, try to discover the causes and develop an improvement plan with the family using multiple resources to address and remove the barriers to good attendance.

Truth be told, however, although Philly’s is now one of the country’s “most sophisticated truancy response systems”–the problem still persists. That’s why District Attorney Seth Williams now wants to step in and send letters to the families of kids with ten or more unexcused absences threatening criminal charges unless things improve.

In a recent interview, he explained, “I want the District Attorney’s office to be the hammer for [Superintendent] Hite or the administrative judges in Family Court or [the Department of Human Services].” He also said that he doesn’t want to prosecute or criminalize parents, just motivate them.

Looks like he might not get a chance, however. District officials say that, because of federal privacy laws, they are prohibited from sharing certain student information. According to Karyn Lynch, head of student support services, “If we could find a way, we would certainly do this.”

Stay tuned but don’t expect schools and concerned politicians like Seth William to do all the heavy lifting. It all starts at home and knowing your obligations under Pennsylvania’s attendance and truancy laws, such as:

1. Children between the ages of 8 and 17 must attend school; in Philly, the start age is 6.
2. A child’s caretaker—parent, guardian, relative, or foster parent—is legally responsible for ensuring a child’s attendance.
3. Most districts excuse absences for illness, emergencies, a family member’s death, medical/dental appointments, school activities, and approved educational travel.
4. A parent note is required for even one day’s absence; when due to illness, a doctor’s note is to be sent, if possible.
5. A request in writing to the school principal is required to excuse a child for a religious holiday or instruction.
6. A max of 10 cumulative excused absences is permitted in any given year; more than that requires a doctor’s note.

Then, on the home front, make schooling everyone’s top priority, and…

• Make sure all homework gets done accurately; if frustration is noted, contact the appropriate teacher(s)
• Set a reasonable time, keeping in mind that teens need about 9 hours a night.
• At bedtime, keep all electronics in the kitchen. Screen light can suppress the hormone melatonin, key to falling asleep. Have them book it, instead.
• Delay wake-up time as long as possible and have a quick but healthy breakfast at the ready, packed school bag waiting by the door.
• Accept only illness as a stay home excuse, not tiredness or unpreparedness.
• Insist that all family members get their flu shot and required vaccines.
• Schedule all dentist, doctor appointments, and such after, not during, school hours.
• When sick, have your child ask a friend to collect all missed work and drop it off or leave it in the main office for pickup.

In other words, be part of the solution instead of the problem.