Ohio schools target chronic absenteeism after law change

Ohio schools are attacking chronic student absenteeism as a way to improve academic performance, two years after state law changed the way schools have to track attendance.

Ohio Department of Education data shows that 16.4 percent of students were chronically absent in 2016-17, meaning they missed 10 percent of the school year or more — with or without excuse. State officials said that percentage has stayed relatively flat the past few years.

Ten percent of the school year is the equivalent of missing 17 or 18 days of classes. But schools are now required to track absenteeism by hours, not just days, so missing two classes for a doctor’s appointment goes into the total just as a sick day or truant day would.

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“There’s the traditional notion of measuring (school-wide) attendance, but chronic absenteeism is a different angle,” said Chris Woolard, senior executive director for accountability and continuous improvement for ODE. “When you start looking at individual student-level attendance, that’s where it really makes a difference. Kids who miss a lot of time are at-risk on a whole variety of important success indicators.”

Woolard said research shows kids who are chronically absent are less likely to read by third grade, more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate and less likely to be college-ready or workforce-ready.

House Bill 410, which took effect last school year, prohibits schools from suspending or expelling students based on truancy, and requires them to establish an “absence intervention team” to work with students who are “habitually truant” without legitimate excuse — missing 30 consecutive hours, 42 hours in a month or 72 hours in a year.

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Greene County Career Center spokesman Ron Bolender walked through the multiple steps the school takes under the new law.

“GCCC has hired a truancy intervention specialist who meets with students prior to the student becoming habitually truant,” Bolender said. “When students fail to attend school, she will also do a home visit in order to understand the situation. An attendance secretary uses state software to track and monitor students’ attendance. Once a student crosses the threshold and becomes habitually truant, a truancy intervention team meets with the student and creates a plan, (with) a parent included on the team.”

Reasons for student absenteeism can vary by community, age group and family circumstance.

Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said illness is a common reason, but she added that many Dayton high school students are absent because of transportation problems, as DPS does not bus high school students. The district just added two more employees in the attendance office.

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“Sometimes they don’t have enough money to get on the bus, and some kids have to work to help provide for the family,” said Thurgood Marshall senior Xodus Thompson. “But everybody’s pretty connected to each other here. If you’re in a sport, the coaches will come out and give rides or help out.”

Warren County Career Center Superintendent Rick Smith said top reasons for students to miss school range from family conflicts and oversleeping, to homelessness and disinterest in school. Oakwood school officials said family travel is a leading reason for absence, and Alter High School Principal Lourdes Lambert cited students traveling out of town for club sports events. Piqua schools’ Director of Student Services Mindy Gearhardt said sometimes the district just doesn’t know, as no reason for the absence is communicated.

Woolard said it’s important for schools to examine students’ individual issues. Is a struggling student skipping school purely because they’re academically frustrated, or is the root cause an undiagnosed vision problem or depression issue that might be solved by connecting them with a health-care provider?

Woolard acknowledged steps like that are outside the school’s traditional academic role, but he said it’s in line with the new State Strategic Plan for education, which pushes schools to consider “the whole child.”

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Franklin schools try that, as Superintendent Michael Sander said his district has an alliance with Centerpointe Health Center to help get students examined by a physician if they don’t have insurance or a family doctor. And Tecumseh Superintendent Paula Crew cited the “direct correlation between a student’s attendance rate and their academic success” as the reason her district works to minimize any obstacles to student attendance.

“Chronic absenteeism improvement” will be a new measure on the 2017-18 state report card for schools this September. Schools must meet a minimum threshold, or show improvement from the previous year to get credit.

In the 2016-17 data, Oakwood and Springboro schools ranked in the top 5 percent of Ohio, with chronic absenteeism rates below 4 percent. A group of districts just northwest of Dayton – Marion Local, Fort Loramie, Russia, St. Henry and Versailles – were five of the best six in Ohio, all below 2 percent. Dayton’s chronic absenteeism rate was 30.7 percent, ranking 603rd of 608 districts. Northridge, Jefferson Twp. and Springfield, also districts that struggle with poverty and low state test scores, were above 20 percent as well.

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Woolard said school districts are getting creative. Cleveland schools ran a phone bank to call chronically absent students, and got some Browns NFL players to help make the calls. Districts with high poverty sometimes offer laundry services to students embarrassed that they don’t have clean clothes. Woolard said other districts are using data to track which type of days have high absenteeism, then adjusting school lunches to put the most popular foods on the menu that day.

Superintendent Nick Weldy said Miami Valley Career Technology Center has used technology to improve its tracking of attendance hours — students scan their ID when arriving late or leaving for an appointment. Parents get a ‘robocall’ notification when their child is not at school.

“House Bill 410 was not meant to have an antagonistic approach,” Woolard said. “When you think about the whole child, it’s more like, attendance is important, your daughter has missed seven days, what can we do to help? Sometimes ‘How can we help?’ is a hard question. There are a lot of districts that are doing a great job at this, but some of this work is new.”

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