September 3, 2013

S. Maine schools tackle chronic absenteeism, focus on parents

South Portland collaborates with other districts on tactics for reducing a problem that hurts student performance.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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