Talk about kids skipping school, and you might picture a high school junior hanging out at the mall.
But experts say the real truancy problem is in the earliest grades when little Johnny drags his feet about going to school and his parents are too quick to allow him to stay home.
It’s not just a few kids, either: In Cumberland County, between 4 percent and 8 percent of elementary school children missed 18 or more days of school during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, according to research by Spurwink, a Portland-based mental health and educational services agency.
South Portland is one of several southern Maine school districts that are working together to tackle the elementary school attendance problem.
Step one: Educate the parents, however well-intentioned they might be.
“It’s as if parents are loving them into poor performance,” said Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer at the Maine Department of Education.
Many parents don’t realize that dropping children off late, picking them up early or being “easygoing” about their staying home can affect their grades down the line, she said.
“If you create that attitude that it’s OK to miss school, that it’s not a big deal, then you’ve set that tone. It’s developing lifelong habits,” said Tome, a former elementary school teacher and principal.
There is a new push nationwide to focus on chronic absenteeism in schools. Attendance Works was established in 2010, out of a research project commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The project examined whether absenteeism was a factor in students not being able to read proficiently by the end of third grade — a key benchmark for future academic success.
The research found that 10 percent of kindergarten and first-grade pupils nationwide miss at least a month of school each year.
The correlation between absenteeism and academic performance is closely linked, according to the research.
“We know first-graders who miss too much kindergarten suffer academically; for low-income students, the ill effects can extend through fifth grade. By sixth grade, chronic absence becomes a red flag that a student will never finish high school. By ninth grade, absenteeism predicts who will drop out better than eighth-grade test scores do,” according to a release from Attendance Works about recent research.
South Portland Schools Superintendent Suzanne Godin said her district has a “significant” truancy problem, and the highest truancy rate is in kindergarten.
“That is a parent issue, not a student issue,” Godin said. “It is a mindset that school is not important.”
For the youngest learners, a certain amount of the absenteeism is because of well-intentioned parents who don’t want to struggle to get a reluctant child on the bus or out the door.
But if the child is indulged, Godin said, it leads to a real resistance and refusal to go to school.
“It sets that foundation,” she said. “It’s impacting our student achievement across the district.”
To tackle that, the district is focusing on attendance in kindergarten through third grade.
The schools have already tried educational outreach to parents through PTA notices, or letters home to families, but Godin said “the reality is, that doesn’t really work. The people that read it are the people that send their kids to school.”
One new approach is setting up better record-keeping that automatically alerts administrators when a student has missed five or more days of school. At that level, the school checks in with the family to discuss the absences and offer help or referrals to appropriate social services agencies.
Godin gets personally involved if a student misses 10 or more days, something that happens a lot, she said.
The Maine Department of Education describes a habitually truant student as one who misses seven days in a row, or 10 days in a school year.
What Godin has found is that the elementary school absences are usually tied to parents having mental health or addiction problems. But in middle school, she said, “We see that begin to flip, where parents may have been dealing with those issues, now it is the students that are exhibiting that.”
The district is now working with Spurwink and the United Way of Greater Portland to provide support to families who need their services.
“We’ll work in a collaborative family meeting to support the family, so it’s not just coming from the school. It’s a community issue,” Godin said.
Tome said the state got more focused on attendance problems as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required secondary schools to track attendance.
Godin said creating a system to document and track absences was the first step. Another successful tool, she said, was creating a more project-based learning model that engages the students directly.
That has worked at Kaler Elementary School, which also launched a schoolwide family-style breakfast in the classrooms before school starts.
“That has drastically reduced the truancy rate and the tardy rate, and nurse visits were cut in half,” Godin said.
This year, the district is part of a new collaborative effort with Westbrook, RSU 14, SAD 61 and Topsham to share best practices and strategies for attendance.
“You can’t teach them if they don’t come to school,” Godin said.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
Portland & South Portland attendance, 2005 vs. 2012
A group of Southern Maine school districts are banding together to tackle the problem of elementary school-level truancy, which experts say leads to worse grades and higher drop-out rates in later grades. This chart shows the attendance rates for schools in Portland and South Portland.