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Getting to the Bottom of Chronic Absence

November 8, 2012 All Articles, Nonprofits and Communities Tags: , , , , 0 Comments

With the election behind us, having taken up so much social-building time, energy and oxygen from our collective efforts in reforming our communities, it’s time to once again roll up our sleeves and look afresh at how to go about building a better tomorrow for our nation’s youth.

There’s a lot to do just now—especially when you look at some of the stats, or challenges, our youth face (see my previous blog posting).  Some of the additional challenges our partners and we are concerned with include not just helping successful students meet their goals in school or life after school, not just improving GPAs and SATs, not just being awarded good internships or scholarships, but even more fundamentally basic things that come before any of that. For example, we used to take simply graduating from school for granted – something that we cannot afford to do today.

If there’s one thing in education today that consumes my attention more than anything else it’s our national dropout rate and how to reduce it. Here’s how bad it is: well over one million of our nation’s school children drop out of school each year. That’s more than one million productive citizens we could be sending into further education as well as fields where they can master needed skills, technological and industrial innovation, and overall individual and communal productivity.

We heard a lot about budget deficits and our national debt this past campaign season, but did we hear about rising dropout rates?  It’s not hard to connect the dots: Dropouts cost this country well over 300 million dollars a year “in lost wages, taxes, and productivity.”  If we want to address economic growth and deficits, we simply must address education—and within the education discussion we simply must address the drop out crisis or what John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises has called our nation’s “Silent Epidemic.”

There are a lot of great people and organizations working on this—and I’d like to highlight some of them over the course of the next several months. At nFocus Solutions’ recent Communities for Change conference, one of the presenters, Hedy Chang of Attendance Works, delivered a presentation that is very much worth highlighting in this discussion of dropout prevention. You can access her PowerPoint presentation here. I will delve more deeply into this with Hedy in an interview I’ll do with her and post in my next blog, but for now here are the basics of what she has found, as summed up in the title of her presentation: “Why Attendance Works: The Importance of Monitoring Early Chronic Absence.”

The misconception is that because students drop out in their late middle-school or in their high school years, that’s when we need to put our focus on them. That’s too late!  Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, knew a lot about education and our youth and he once pointed out that “Children don’t drop out of high school when they are 16, they do so in the first grade and wait 10 years to make it official.” We need to focus on dropout prevention at much earlier than even the middle school level.

Hedy fixes the beginnings of the slow march toward dropping out on early education “chronic absence,” or, simply not attending school. That makes sense. What people don’t know is the definition of “chronic” in this context: here, chronic means missing about 18 days of school. In other words, as Hedy puts it, attending 90 percent of school is simply not enough to guarantee a true commitment to school or staying in school. Or try this statistic on for size: if you miss just 10 percent of kindergarten and first grade, there is a greater than 80 percent chance you will not be able to read at a proficient level in the third grade.  And why does third grade matter?  It is the key as to when a student should be at a proficient level of reading. As one recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it: “students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma when compared to proficient readers.”  There are even worse and long-term outcomes for third graders who can’t read as well.

But the point is this: we all need to be paying attention to the signs that a child is at risk at a much earlier point in his or her life. This is paramount if we plan to prevent poor decisions that a child will make later in life—decisions that will plague that child into adulthood. And we need to understand just how little time it takes for those decisions to harden early on.

Additionally, we must understand one more important thing: the leading indicators for chronic absence. There are many indicators, from transportation and economic factors to classroom environment, curricula and teaching. Each of these things could take thousands of words to discuss and we’ll get into some of that later. However, for now, it’s suffice to say that there are programs, efforts and reforms that actually can and do work to reverse these trends, and nobody is fixed or set up to be a dropout statistic—nobody— simply because he or she may face difficult challenges early on.

The first way to address any problem is to recognize it. Hopefully we have restarted some of that conversation here. Stay tuned for my next posting when I discuss with Hedy her findings on how to overcome these challenges. The good news, until then, is they can be overcome!

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