“Being present is what you experience when you are completely focused on this very moment.” This is a popular definition of present, especially given all of the research on mindfulness. However, while being mentally present is something everyone could work on in their daily lives, some students have difficulty being physically present at school.
NPR’s recent article, “What One District’s Data Mining Did For Chronic Absence” got me thinking about my students – past and present – and their attendance. It also made me reflect on school attendance policies, which, surprisingly, can vary from district to district and oftentimes, school to school.
The article makes a few salient points, one being that it’s difficult to teach students when they are not in school. Sure, missing a day or two here and there will not put a student behind. However, chronic absences can (and do). But what is a chronic absence?
I’ve looked this up and it varies. Some schools consider 3 unexcused absences a year chronic. Others state that 10 absences without a doctor’s note are unexcused and chronic. As a teacher, I have often wondered why attendance rules are so murky in some schools and strict at others.
As a high school student growing up in the Midwest, it was considered an excused absence if you chose to go hunting during a designated week in the fall. Clearly, the attendance rules need to be tailored to the ways of life and norms of the community in which the school resides; however, when chronic absences are left alone, the only one who suffers is the student.
In many urban communities, students neglect to come to school due to circumstances beyond their control: family trauma, transportation and working parents are often major factors in whether or not a student shows up in a classroom. Over the years, I’ve had more students miss school who actually did not want to miss school. However, circumstances out of their control forced them to stay at home. An early bus. A lost transit pass. A parent who overslept. The list is endless.
While some of my students would (and still do) email me for missing assignments when they are absent, these usually are not the students who are chronically absent for days at a time. They are also not the students who struggle the most. The students who sporadically come to school are the ones who find it difficult to keep their heads above water in their classes. This leads to frustration, anxiety and a myriad of other feelings because they have so much work to make-up and have missed a great deal of instruction.
For a teacher, this chronic absence problem is also frustrating. We spend our prep time re-teaching lessons to students, gathering make-up work and trying to get students caught up, only to have them be absent the next day. And the cycle continues.
Perhaps the city of Grand Rapids was onto something. Involving parents and holding them accountable, not by blaming them, but by educating them. Students will follow their parents’ lead. My parents were always of the mindset that “early is on time.” I’m usually super early to everything. But late? Never. This is not something I learned in a classroom, but something I witnessed at home.
More districts and schools need to reach out to the people in the community in order to improve attendance. Letters and phone calls home about chronic absences is impersonal and probably makes parents feel ashamed. Perhaps the solution to the attendance issue is schools and communities working together.