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Q&A With Hedy Chang of Attendance Works – Part 1

January 2, 2013 All Articles, Nonprofits and Communities Tags: , , , , , 0 Comments

Hedy Chang is the Director of Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence. A skilled presenter, facilitator, researcher and writer, she co-authored the seminal report, Present, Engaged and Accounted for: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, as well as numerous other articles about student attendance.

Last month, I blogged about a recent presentation she delivered at Communities for Change 2012 in Houston regarding early chronic absence. As I discussed in that previous entry, chronic absence has a direct impact on elementary-level reading proficiency, with students who don’t read proficiently by third grade being four times more likely to eventually drop out of school. Currently, more than 1 million students drop out each year.

I wanted to follow up with Hedy to get further insight into chronic absence. Below is the text of the first part of my interview. Keep a look out in January for the second part, which details the role teachers have and how “drop-out factories”, or schools with poor test scores, attendance and other results, can turn it around.

1. Please tell us how you got into education reform, and why you’ve chosen to focus on issues of attendance and absence:

I have been working in the fields of education, human services and social justice for my entire professional career.  I’ve always felt education is key to ensuring every person in the United States has an equal opportunity to succeed.  I believe every parent wants their child to thrive and be successful but chronic absence is a sign that this American Dream is at risk.  Chronic absence often means that families are struggling so much that they don’t even have the resources to make sure their children are in school.

2. It seems there are about fifty major issues affecting elementary and secondary education. If we can successfully address chronic absence, will we also be on our way to solving a lot of the other issues within education?

Reducing chronic absence is essential but we should keep in mind that it is not a silver bullet. Having students in class does not guarantee that they will learn, especially if instruction is not effective. On the other hand, if students aren’t in class, we know they can’t benefit from high quality teaching.  Moreover, high levels of attendance are often a sign that the teachers are able to teach in an engaging and meaningful manner and convey to students and families that going to school every day matters.

3. There are many indicators for a student becoming a chronically absent student, from transportation and economic factors to classroom environment, curricula and teaching. How do you rate those indicators?

Building off the work of Robert Balfanz, we believe you can think about the reason students don’t attend school regularly in terms of three major categories. These categories are:

  • Discretion – Families don’t realize that missing just 2 days a month every month could be a problem or they may not know attendance in kindergarten is important
  • Aversion – the child is being bullied or a class isn’t meeting their educational needs
  • Real barriers – transportation, poor health, etc.

Exactly which types of barriers are impeding attendance, however, can vary depending on the age of the children, community conditions and the strength of the school’s educational program.   Rather than assume you know which barriers area problem, it is important to use local data as well as insights from talking to students and families to determine which factors are the biggest problems affecting attendance.

4. Can we really address all of these indicators?  Take transportation and a severely at risk student, for example.  Can we guarantee his way to school every day?

Each community needs to use data to identify which students and schools are most affected by chronic absence, determine which barriers are most problematic and examine what resources are available to change the situation. We need to look beyond addressing problems one by one to finding out if there is a problem that affects a large number of students that could have a programmatic solution.

For example, if there are a number of students who can’t get to school because the route isn’t safe, then students and families could organize a walking school bus.  Or if the problem is asthma related to mold in homes, then perhaps schools and health providers need to work together to create an asthma education program as well as enlist government agencies in helping to improve the physical conditions of local housing stock.

5. Have we set expectations too high with phrases like “No child left behind” or is that doable? Can we actually see 100% attendance and graduation rates at some point, even if we don’t see 100% proficiency?

I think we need to allow for the reality that there will always be some absences due to illness. I would want to see all students attending school at least 95% of the time, which is something we call satisfactory attendance.

Learn more about Hedy Change, Attendance Works and their research on chronic absence by visiting Part two of our exclusive Q&A will be featured in our next entry in January 2013.

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