Nearly a quarter of students attending public schools in La Plata County during the 2013-14 school year missed 15 days or more – almost twice the national average, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education.
It is an alarming statistic considering what educational experts know about chronic absenteeism: Excessive absences can be an early sign that children are experiencing physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental-health issues, symptoms of poverty, suicidal tendencies and other problems in the home.
Missing classes creates a domino effect, making it increasingly difficult for a child to acquire fundamental building blocks to become successful readers in kindergarten or pass math classes in high school, said Judith Martinez, director of the office of dropout prevention and student re-engagement for the Colorado Department of Education.
“Attendance, or lack of attendance, is an early warning sign that a student might be in the process of leaving school without completing it,” Martinez said.
Twice the national averageFor the first time, the U.S. Department of Education released national data on chronic absenteeism for nearly every public school across the country. The data show that more than 6 million students, or 13 percent of all students, missed at least 15 days of school during the 2013-14 school year.
John B. King Jr., U.S. secretary of education, called it a “national problem.”
“Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child’s education,” he said in a news release. “Missing school leads to low academic achievement and triggers dropouts. Millions of young people are missing opportunities in postsecondary education, good careers and a chance to experience the American dream.”
Colorado absenteeism ranked even higher, at 16.3 percent, and La Plata County ranked higher yet, at 24.2 percent – meaning almost 1 in 4 kids missed 15 days or more.
Chronic absenteeism was highest in Ignacio School District (37.2 percent) followed by Bayfield School District (29.4 percent) and Durango School District (20.8 percent), according to numbers crunched by the Associated Press.
“There’s an interesting culture here in Durango that attendance is not important,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R. “It really is trying to shift that culture with parents and the community as a whole that attendance really is critical to good academic success.”
Haves and have-notsReasons for chronic absenteeism in Southwest Colorado are as diverse as the community itself.
Some parents pull their kids out of school to go on vacation or allow them to miss school to join a snowboard team, said Jennifer Turner, a program coordinator for La Plata Youth Services.
Those are the lucky ones.
Many others struggle with physical or emotional issues, including societal problems related to domestic violence, substance abuse or run-ins with the law, Turner said.
Poverty also presents a barrier to good attendance, she said. Parents who work two jobs or maintain odd hours are less likely to make sure their kids get to school or complete their homework. Impoverished children experience more stress, tend to be malnourished and are less healthy overall, she said.
She recalled one student who withdrew from school because fellow students made fun of him for wearing Barney socks, which were handed down from his older brother. And another boy struggled with attendance after kids made fun of him for being dirty, Turner said. He was the youngest of four children, and all four had to share the same bathroom, so he never got his chance to shower and brush his teeth before going to school, Turner said.
“We have a lot of kids in our community who are facing some really adverse life situations. They’re just not on the radar of our mainstream community,” she said.
All children engage in risk-taking behaviors, she said, but that can manifest differently based on socioeconomic status: Children from an affluent family may seek thrill by joining a snowboard team, while impoverished children may do it by skipping school and smoking pot.
“They’re all thrill-seeking,” she said. “But through poverty, you lose access to healthier expressions of teenage boundary pushing.”
Tip of the icebergIgnacio School District may have been dealt a double whammy: About half of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches, meaning they come from poor families, and more than half are of Native American or Latino descent.
According to the U.S. Department of Education data, ethnic minorities, especially Native Americans, are at a higher risk of being chronically absent.
Of the 174 Native American students enrolled in the Ignacio School District during the 2013-14 school year, about 57 percent were chronically absent, according to the data.
The school district works with families to identify the root causes for absenteeism, said Jaceson Cole, social worker for the district.
Attendance problems tend to be the “tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“It can be very frustrating to work with chronic absenteeism, because the problems are so complex,” Cole said. “Often, it’s issues that involve poverty, institutionalized racism, historical traumas, unaddressed mental-health issues – we find those across the board.”
If a student is absent, the school district calls a family member, and if staff can’t get a hold of a family member, they often attempt a home visit, he said.
“We really need the family’s involvement so we can identify exactly what is causing those symptoms, those underlying issues,” Cole said.
This year, the school district recognized students who attended 95 percent of the school year – missing no more than eight days – by giving them and their families a $100 gift card for a dinner and a movie.
“If the kids are not in the classroom, how can we educate them?” said Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of Ignacio School District. “You’ve got to change the whole culture of the community. It’s tough. It takes a couple of generations to make some changes.”
The habit of being absentSchool officials often use two terms when discussing missed school: truancy and absentee.
Truancies tend to exclude certain absences, for example, if a parent calls in to “excuse” a child from coming to school or if a child is “excused” from being in class because he or she is traveling with a sports team. Truancy data is less uniform and subject to interpretation.
Absentee numbers, on the other hand, look at whether a child is in school, regardless of the excuse.
“It’s not enough to just focus on truancy,” Martinez said. “You have to focus on attendance overall, because a student missing 15 days of school, whether it was excused or unexcused, is 15 days of missing important instruction.”
Martinez said schools need to create a culture of expectation around attendance. Parents might think it’s OK to pull a kindergartner from school, because they’ll miss coloring, she said. But kindergartners also receive the fundamental building blocks to learn how to read, and missing a few days can make a huge difference in their future education, she said.
Missing school can become habit-forming at the secondary level. It is important for parents and school officials to respond immediately to identify and address the cause, which might include social anxiety or bullying, Martinez said.
Attendance behaviors ingrained by high school are likely to carry over to their professional careers.
Local business leaders have faulted some graduates for lacking a solid work-ethic, meaning they call in sick on powder days or don’t dress appropriately, Popp said.
“Skill sets and technical needs can all be trained and developed,” Popp said. “What we’re really lacking, and what we see in our youth as they enter the workforce, is that hard work ethic – that they don’t call out on a powder day, that they show up every day shaved and prepared in appropriate clothing for their work.”