Chronic absenteeism: What local schools are doing to keep kids in the classroom

Ohio schools are fighting to end a stubborn chronic absenteeism problem, using everything from trophy competitions and monthly robocalls to mentoring and improved busing plans to get students to school more regularly.

Last week, Saville Elementary in Mad River schools handed out restaurant gift cards to 34 students for perfect third-quarter attendance. Kettering schools held a special trophy presentation at their school board meeting, honoring the elementary school, middle school and high school wing that had the best attendance for the month of February.

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Ohio defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% of the school year or more, with or without excuse. That’s equal to missing two days a month. The statewide chronic absenteeism rate has been stuck at about 16% the past few years, dropping from 16.4% in 2016-17 to 16.0% in 2017-18. A new law introduced last school year requires schools to carefully track attendance and provide an intervention team to work with habitually truant students.

In 2017-18, area chronic absenteeism rates ranged from about 3% at Miami East and Springboro schools, to more than 30% at Dayton and Northridge. And as with the state, local progress was limited. Twenty-one districts saw their rate improve last school year, while 19 got worse. The biggest improvements came from Beavercreek, New Lebanon, Tecumseh and Valley View schools, while Fairborn, Xenia, Mad River and Trotwood-Madison had the largest negative changes.

“I’ve got to be in school to learn and grow and achieve,” Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said. “It also sets the stage for the future. As an adult, if I miss work three or four or five days a month, I’m not going to have a job very long. If I go to college and miss classes, I’m not going to pass.”

Lolli said Dayton schools launched an aggressive attendance program this school year, using billboards, radio ads, robocalls and more to push the importance of being in school regularly. The district is working on parent engagement, and in mid-March, 85 DPS employees and volunteers split up for a Saturday “attendance walk,” visiting the homes of frequently absent students.

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Lolli said the district doesn’t have good data yet on the impact this year, after Dayton’s chronic absenteeism rate went from 30.1% in 2016-17 to 30.7% in 2017-18. One big step for next year is pending, as Lolli said DPS is still working with RTA on the financial feasibility of bringing back busing for its high school students.

In the meantime, DPS has a committee working on an attendance plan for next year and is looking for partners to provide student incentives such as gift cards and bikes.

Mad River schools got aggressive with attendance programs this school year, after their chronic absenteeism rate rose from 13.1% to 17.2% last year.

“Chronic absenteeism can be a result of something else that’s prominent in a student’s life, such as a struggle with mental health issues, homelessness or transportation,” Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen said. “A student could be struggling academically and just giving up, or they could have a difficult relationship in school affecting them.”

Mad River officials said new initiatives have led to a turnaround in habitually absent students. Wyen and HR Director Necia Nicholas go to all four elementary buildings monthly, both to meet with chronically absent students and to give “treasure chest” rewards to students who missed one day or less. Those students are entered into an end-of-year drawing for an electric scooter.

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Wyen said child poverty “has profound implications on attendance,” so Mad River schools try to build family connections via their own staff as well as local churches to identify hurdles to attendance. They provide mentors to connect struggling students with caring adults and positive role models.

Kettering has held a fall attendance competition among schools for three years – complete with traveling trophies sponsored by the local Optimist Club – but added a February version this school year because that was the month with the worst attendance. But the district is not putting the onus only on kids and families.

“That’s cold and flu season, so now in February, (Director of Business Services Ken Lackey) works with the custodians and gives them a sheet on the difference between cleaning and disinfecting,” Assistant Superintendent Dan Von Handorf said. “They do things a little different in cold and flu season to try to kill the germs.”

Kettering’s chronic absentee rate dropped from 7.7% to 6.8% last year. Last week, Orchard Park Elementary, Van Buren Middle School and the West Unit of Fairmont High School were honored for winning the February attendance contests.

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School board member Julie Gilmore said a friend’s grandson was so fired up about the trophy that he improved his attendance and wants to go to school even if he’s sick. Von Handorf cautioned against that, saying it’s important not to spread germs in close quarters at school.

Last fall, Ohio Department of Education officials said kids who are chronically absent are less likely to read by third grade, more likely to drop out, and less likely to be college- or workforce-ready. Schools are looking at everything from family causes to a link between least popular school lunch items and attendance on those days.

“While we are on the right track, there is still a lot of work to be done,” Wyen said. “To create lasting attendance gains, we must consider every aspect of our students’ lives — discipline policies, emotional support, quality of teaching, and the relationship between the district and families.”

School absenteeism

Lowest and highest rates of chronic absenteeism in local schools, 2017-18:

Miami East: 2.7%

Springboro: 3.1%

Oakwood: 4.2%

Brookville: 4.9%

Local median: 8.8%

Trotwood: 22.4%

Jefferson Twp.: 26.8%

Dayton: 30.7%

Northridge: 33.2%

Source: Ohio Department of Education

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