September is, appropriately enough, Attendance Awareness Month and a good time to talk about how attendance is a portal to many other issues involving Baltimore City students, families and schools. Nearly 85% of our students qualify for free and reduced meals, which is an indicator for poverty; and we can’t discount the attendant barriers and burdens that accompany modern poverty in America. Baltimore City children often become chronically absent (missing 20 or more days of school in a school year) due to these barriers and burdens.
Older children too often develop adult-like concerns of their own which may include: the care of younger siblings or their own offspring; being the responsible person to handle recurring family emergencies; responding to the need to bring income into struggling households; handling issues regarding themselves or family members who are struggling with addiction; unstable housing; involvement with juvenile justice; and/or the overall effects of coping with chronic stress and childhood trauma.
There are also students who skip school due to a lack of engaging or relevant schoolwork, and/or disruptive, unwelcoming school environments in which students are bored, or fearful of coming to school. Younger children are often chronically absent because they are in the care of adults who are themselves struggling with the issues above. Students also miss school due to an unwieldy transit system and student push out through out of school suspensions, for what are often minor infractions.
The obvious problem with students missing class time is that they struggle and fall behind academically, and are often unable to ever catch up to their classmates. But there are ways we can respond to this disturbing phenomenon. Numerous advocacy organizations are being funded by OSI-Baltimore to raise awareness about the problem of chronic absence which by the most recent accounts encompassed 39% of our student body. OSI efforts to stem the tide of out of school suspensions and to shed light on attendance and school climate best practices have also yielded results (out-of-school suspensions dropped by over 60% in an OSI-led 10-year push to reduce suspensions). Future trainings are being scheduled with the OSI-funded University of Maryland School of Social Work’s Positive Schools Center in which Baltimore City educators will learn about the multiple factors that result in chronic absence and academic failure.
Simple best practices can stave off chronic absence when educators are connected to information and resources that already exist in our schools and communities. Trainings on trauma-informed instruction, de-escalation, bullying prevention, alternatives to suspension and the like can go a long way in welcoming our students and families back into schools. The most basic best attendance practice is the question that caring adults can ask a child who has missed two or more consecutive days of school, “Why were you absent and is there anything I can do to help you?” Let’s begin to ask that question of our young people starting today.