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Education Report: Chronic Absenteeism Undermines Over 5 Million Students

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Danet Robaina-Cline, an attendance counselor at Chaparral High, considers her school lucky.

Like other schools in Las Vegas, a city reeling from the worst ravages of the foreclosure crisis, Chaparral serves impoverished children. They live in foster care or homeless shelters. They must watch over their younger siblings or move several times a year. But because Chaparral is in the middle of a well-funded turnaround process, it's one of the very few schools that can afford an attendance counselor.

It's one of the very few schools that could have picked up on the fact that a certain student was the sole breadwinner for his family.

After Chaparral's attendance reporting system found this student had missed many days of school, administrators sent him to talk with Robaina-Cline. "During our second meeting, he was discussing this very bitter kind of attitude about not being able to do certain things in school," she said. "Then, he let loose, he totally vented about his life."

His parents were ill and out of work, leaving him to support the family with his fast-food job. "He was in survival mode," Robaina-Cline recalled. "He had to ask himself the same question every day: Are you going to eat, or are you going to take a history test? Going to school became a luxury. But if you're not in school, you won't be successful, and you won't graduate."

Chaparral worked with the family, and the student is now on track to graduate with his class.

At many other schools, though, that student might have been invisible. Between 5 million and 7.5 million students miss a month of school every year, according to a report that will be released Thursday by Johns Hopkins professor Bob Balfanz, who runs the university's Everyone Graduates Center. And many of them go unnoticed: Schools' overall attendance rates don't reveal the percentage of students who are absent too often. The paper, titled "The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation's Public Schools," is the first to quantify chronic absenteeism at a national level.

Chronic absenteeism -- defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days -- is more prevalent among high-poverty students. In New York City, 200,00 students, or 20 percent, were chronically absent in the 2010-2011 school year. In Baltimore, one-fourth of all students missed more than a month of school during the same year. Balfanz and his coauthor Vaughan Byrnes estimate that between 10 and 15 percent of students nationwide miss at least one in 10 school days.

"This is how poverty impacts kids' performance in school," Balfanz said. "They have to get their sister to school, and that makes them late, so they just pretend to be sick rather than getting in trouble. Or they need to earn money to help the family. Or there's gang violence they're avoiding."

As some education advocates push for more rigorous academics and teacher accountability, Balfanz argues they fail to ask a basic question: Are kids actually in school?

"Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered," the report says. Lacking information about absenteeism, "[e]ducators and policymakers cannot truly understand achievement gaps or efforts to close them."

High absenteeism, the paper contends, is the best single predictor of whether a student will drop out of school -- a choice that can severely limit the individual's life earnings and career potential. Missing school also affects performance on standardized tests. A California-based study found that San Mateo and Santa Clara students who arrived in school ready to learn but then missed a significant chunk of the school year scored 60 percent below students with good attendance records on reading tests and 100 points lower on math tests.

"If kids aren't in school, the best reforms aren’t going to make a difference," Balfanz said.

Despite its links to academic performance and graduation, only six states -- Oregon, Rhode Island, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Nebraska -- report on chronic absenteeism. New York and California don't even collect the data researchers need to calculate the rates.

The new report was commissioned by the Get Schooled Foundation, a campaign focused on increasing graduation rates that is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Before this paper, we didn't have a sense of how large the scale of chronic absenteeism is," said Hedy Chang, director of the nonprofit group Attendance Works. "We have to make sure kids have the resources to get to school in the first place."

The paper has suggestions for the federal government. Balfanz recommends that the No Child Left Behind waiver process require school turnaround plans to include tracking of and responding to chronic absenteeism and that the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights survey collect data on chronic absenteeism.

Officials at the Education Department did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher, plans to sponsor a congressional briefing Balfanz will hold Thursday, though she will not attend.

"This important research shines a bright light on this problem in our schools and it makes it clear that we all need to do more to make sure students make it into the classroom so that they have the best chance to succeed," Murray said in a statement.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Sen. Patty Murray planned on attending the Balfanz briefing. She is sponsoring the briefing, though she will not be present.

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