The mother was anxious when she arrived at Monte Vista Elementary School in southern Colorado to discuss her 7-year-old daughter’s absences and frequent late arrivals.
But there were no reprimands that day in the school library. Instead, during a meeting led by an outside facilitator, a school staff member started by saying, “Hey, we really love it when your daughter is here. She’s so full of energy and excitement.”
Soon, the mother was opening up about the problems that made it tough to get her child to school on time, or at all — her work demands, her boyfriend’s unreliable car and her fears about sending her young daughter alone on the half-mile walk to the bus stop on frigid winter days.
The mother left with a sense of relief and the beginnings of a carpool plan that would enlist neighboring families to drive the little girl to the bus stop on days her family couldn’t.
That meeting a few years ago was part of a four-year effort by the Monte Vista school district and a local nonprofit group to combat chronic absenteeism among students. It’s also the kind of program that more school districts around Colorado may adopt or expand with the state’s recent decision to use chronic absenteeism as one measure in its accountability system.
Chronic absences — when kids miss school 10 percent or more of the time — increase the likelihood kids won’t read well by the end of third grade, will be held back in later grades and will drop out of high school.
Colorado is one of more than a dozen states that will use chronic absenteeism as a measure of school and district quality in the education plans they’ll soon submit to the federal government. More specifically, Colorado will look at whether schools and districts are reducing chronic absenteeism among elementary- and middle-schoolers. At the high school level, the state will look at dropout rates.
Under the federal education law passed in 2015, states were no longer confined to academic measures such as test scores and graduation rates in their accountability systems. Instead, they could choose a non-academic measure, too. Commonly referred to as the “fifth indicator,” it won’t count as much as the four academic indicators, but advocates see it as a chance to take a more holistic view of school success.
Under Colorado’s accountability system, consistently poor-performing schools can face state intervention and consistently poor-performing districts can face the loss of accreditation.
Sue Fothergill, associate director of policy at the national initiative Attendance Works, said she’s heartened to see so many states include chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans.
She said reducing chronic absenteeism rates can be a daunting challenge, but making it a priority in the plans could push districts to shift resources to such efforts and galvanize community leaders to get involved.
In Colorado, chronic absenteeism will be used for a year in the state’s plan and then may be replaced.
Dan Jorgensen, accountability support manager for the state education department, said chronic absenteeism could be retained as one component of the fifth indicator, but it will be up to a committee of education leaders to decide.
Lisa Escarcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives and a member of the committee that developed the state plan, said chronic absenteeism works well in the short term because the state already collects such data from school districts and it’s a serviceable proxy for school climate.
Still, she said members of the workgroup that considered the options had initially envisioned something a little different.
“I think they imagined having a fifth indicator that was broader in scope and reflected more the kinds of things around climate and culture of schools…a little bit more of a qualitative type of indicator,” she said.
Luke Yoder, executive director of the Alamosa-based Center for Restorative Programs, which works with local school districts to address chronic absenteeism, said including the indicator in the state accountability plan “on many levels … makes a ton of sense.”
Still, he worried it could cause some districts to fudge the numbers — sometimes an unintended consequence of new mandates.
Root of the problem
Rates of chronic absenteeism are all over the map in Colorado school districts.
In Douglas County, the rate is just 4 percent. It’s more than 30 percent in Pueblo 60 and Adams 14, according to 2013-14 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. (The state began collecting chronic absenteeism rates from school districts last spring, but those numbers haven’t been released publicly yet.)
Then there are tiny rural districts, such as Centennial in the San Luis Valley, where 47 percent of students are chronically absent.
But a grant-funded initiative begun this year in partnership with the Center for Restorative Programs could help the 215-student district bring down those numbers. It’s similar to the effort in the Monte Vista school district that led to the parent meeting in the elementary school library.
The idea is to intervene with families early on — usually after a student has just three absences — using a friendly, problem-solving approach.
“It’s an opportunity to start a conversation that’s much more of a bridge-building conversation instead of a scolding,” said Yoder, who led the meeting with the mother of the 7-year-old girl.
There are lots of reasons that student absences pile up and many have to do with poverty, including a lack of stable housing or reliable transportation. Parents may also have work shifts that conflict with school start times or lean on older children to stay home with younger siblings if the usual caregiver is sick or busy.
As kids get older, they may miss school because of academic, social or mental health problems, or because they’ve taken on jobs to help their families. Some kids also miss school because they’ve been suspended or expelled.
Advocates like Yoder say absenteeism is a complex problem that requires a non-punitive approach from schools.
“Too many of our school districts fall into the trap of waiting until it’s a real a problem and (they) file in court and drop the hammer on these families,” he said, referring to the truancy court system.
The gentler approach his organization has helped institute in Monte Vista, and is now working toward in Centennial, gets results, he said.
Since the effort started in Monte Vista, the proportion of students with 10 or more absences has dropped from 44 percent to 28 percent and the proportion of students with 20 or more absences has dropped from 17 percent to 6 percent.
While many Colorado districts say the issue of chronic absenteeism is on their radar, they note stagnating state funding has hurt efforts to address the issue.
Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for Greeley district, said there used to be school-based attendance liaisons whose job was to help monitor students who missed lots of school. But those positions were cut three years ago. Now, there are just two attendance liaisons for the 22,000-student district, so much of the burden has fallen back onto teachers and principals.
Chronic absenteeism was 19 percent in Greeley in 2013-14, according to the Office of Civil Rights data.
“It is a resource issue for us,” Myers said.
Escarcega, who until last year was a top administrator in Aurora Public Schools, said her former district used to have a major truancy initiative in place, but it’s been scaled back dramatically over the years because of budget cuts.
“It starts to become a game of tradeoffs,” she said. “The funding isn’t going to increase just because we said you have to do chronic absenteeism.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.