Over 27,600 or 15 percent of Maine students are chronically absent from school, missing over three weeks of school each year. The data from the 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights mirror what we have learned from working with individual school districts.

Not surprisingly, students who miss school frequently end up with gaps in their learning. They are less likely to read proficiently by third grade and more likely to struggle with coursework in middle and high school.

Even when absences are excused, missing just two to three days a month can cause students to fall behind. Two days a month means missing 20 days during the school year. Translated to the workplace, it would mean that 15 percent of employees miss almost a month of work each year – in addition to vacations.

Absenteeism is a problem with cumulative effects continuing from one school year to the next. We know that students who miss school frequently achieve at a lower level than their regularly attending peers. Maine elementary students who are chronically absent, missing 18 or more days, consistently scored on average lower in reading and math on the Northwest Evaluation Association assessment compared with students who attend regularly, according to an analysis by Count ME In. National research has shown that students who miss two or three days a month in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiently by third grade.

Chronic absenteeism affects everyone in the classroom, the workplace and the community, while improving attendance can be a hidden key to raising student achievement and success.

The good news is that chronic absenteeism is a solvable problem. Attending school regularly helps children develop foundations of learning and habits of attending. High attendance rates are linked to better student achievement.This is true for every grade – kindergarten through high school.

Communities around Maine are working together with Count ME In, an organization whose mission is to increase student attendance through data-driven strategies so that every child is an engaged, successful learner. Count ME In partners with schools, families, state and community organizations to 1) create a positive culture of attendance among children as soon as they start school; 2) monitor student absences and identify students who are at-risk or chronically absent; 3) identify, assess and implement strategies to overcome barriers affecting school attendance, and 4) track effectiveness. Chronic absence is a problem that can be solved when schools, families and communities work together.

South Portland school staff are working closely with families and community partners to increase attendance and learning. The South Portland Partners for Student Success has provided an opportunity for schools and community organizations to access resources to better support students. Their aim is to reduce barriers to school attendance and find ways to better connect students and their families to their school.

In Regional School Unit 57, which serves the towns of Alfred, Limerick, Lyman, Newfield, Shapleigh and Waterboro, elementary schools partnered with families and established building-based teams that review and track absences. Together, families and schools establish strategies to improve attendance and reduce chronic absenteeism. By the end of the second year, some schools saw their chronic absentee rate decrease by 44 percent.

In other towns and cities, there are groups of volunteers who are walking with students and families to school or to the school bus stop. These communities have effectively adopted prevention-oriented approaches to reduce chronic absence and nurture a school culture that promotes learning. Addressing chronic absenteeism is a key strategy to increasing academic achievement and graduation rates.

Schools can’t do this alone. We need the whole community to help. Think about what you can do in your own neighborhood and community to help get students to school. Know the chronic absentee rate in your school and work with the local school on how you can support students in your community. Join us in the effort to make every day count.