Guest Blog Post: Student Advocacy

We’ve been paying attention to Chronic Absence since the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, and we are not alone.  In addition to the ongoing national discussion, local media has also been covering this topic: the Journal News featured chronic absence on its’ front page.

Our previous blog posts focused mainly on the data, but in this blog post, we wanted to bring chronic absence to a more personable level.   We invited Lisa Syron, Executive Director of Student Advocacy, to give her organization’s perspective of what chronic absence looks like at the student level.  They have been instrumental in bringing local attention to the issue and it would be thoughtless not to include them in the conversation.

But, because so much of what we do focuses on data, we included a new data visualization that allows you to view, down to the specific school, chronic absence rates by race, as well as, highlights the Free and Reduced Lunch rate for that school.  Aaron Elliott, a recent graduate of University of Buffalo (MA in Sociology) constructed this visualization. Many thanks to Aaron.

Addressing Chronic Absence is a Critical Tool for Communities to Help Kids

When children suffer greatly, we often ask ‘why didn’t someone intervene earlier before the problem grew to this crisis?’ Every community has an important tool to do just that which is to address chronic attendance problems.

Good school attendance is a very worthwhile goal since it improves children’s school performance.  For example, studies show that children who miss too many days in Kindergarten and first grade often have trouble mastering reading by the end of the third grade. By middle school, chronic absence is a strong warning sign that a student will drop out. Improving attendance is an important strategy to raising academic performance and preventing dropouts. Addressing chronic absence enables communities to catch problems early enough to allow for lower-level, effective interventions.

Chronic absence is defined as missing 10% or more of school for any reason including excused absence, unexcused absence or suspension[1]. Even schools with high attendance rates can have students who are chronically absent. These kids, or their families, are often criticized under the banner of “truancy”. Students are blamed for their alleged willful misbehavior or families are blamed for their inadequate support of their child’s education. Student Advocacy’s support of pilot programs that address chronic absence in different Westchester school districts, and advocacy for our own clients reveal a very different picture: chronic attendance problems typically reflect problems that families could not resolve on their own. Consider the following cases:

Anton has to walk to his elementary school. In his community, the budget for snow removal doesn’t always keep pace with winter storms. So in bad winters, Anton misses a lot of school because the streets are too difficult to navigate. Inadequate snow removal affects the attendance of many students in his school district.

Chelsea has severe asthma. On days when she is having a lot of difficulty, her mom keeps her home; she’s fearful about Chelsea having an episode at school without proper medical treatment. Limited health services to manage chronic health issues have a significant impact on school attendance. Chelsea also needs an accommodation plan at school, called a 504 Plan, so that appropriate procedures, including trained staff and medication, are available should she need help during the school day.

Tom lives in a public housing facility that has a lice infestation. He has to stay home when he has an active case of lice. His mother works hard to quickly eliminate the lice but the infestation in the building makes it a losing battle. Tom, and other children in his building, miss many days of school. Housing problems can affect school attendance.

Steve is having significant difficulty at school. Although he is in third grade, he can barely read. His academic deficits are magnified by bullies. He takes every opportunity to avoid school. Undetected disabilities make children with special needs even more vulnerable, which can result in attendance problems.

Andrea was being abused at home by an older sibling. Although she lived in fear at home, she was too embarrassed to leave the house. She also missed many days of school.

While schools must take the lead to track and identify students who are chronically absent, solutions may well require the support and collaboration of the entire community. Snow removal, inadequate health services, housing problems, undetected disabilities, bullying, and abuse are just some of the issues that cause attendance problems.

We can wait until the children and youth burdened by these problems fail, or worse yet, drop out of school. Or, we can take attendance improvement seriously, first identifying and intervening with kids who are chronically absent and second, devising school and community solutions to resolve the underlying problems causing poor school attendance. We have a vital tool in our hands to help our most vulnerable kids. Let’s use it!

Lisa Syron, Executive Director, Student Advocacy, Inc., www.studentadvocacy.net

Student Advocacy, Inc. is a nonprofit that helps Westchester and Putnam families resolve school problems using our unique legally-based, problem-solving approach. Our goal is to change the youth’s services and supports at school, to the extent that the law supports, so that school becomes a positive place for the child’s development and education. We get kids on track to school success because to ensure an education is to enhance a life.

[1] www.attendanceworks.org


Notes on Data Visualization
https://public.tableau.com/views/ChronicAbsenceFRLDashboard/Dashboard1?:embed=y&:display_count=yes

  1. Regarding the calculation for rate of Chronic Absence by Race: this rate is calculated by taking the number of chronically absent students from this particular racial subgroup and dividing it by the total number of enrolled students of the same racial subgroup. The graph should read: Out of n students that identify as [racial subgroup], x% are chronically absent.
  2. Please note that NYSED does not include Pre-K numbers when calculating Free/Reduced Lunch.

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