When young students miss too many days of school, it’s not because they don’t want to learn. And it’s not often because their parents don’t care about education.

There’s almost always something else going on, and that something else almost always has poverty as its root cause. Thus, hectoring the kids, or shaming and punishing the parents, won’t do much besides push the family further away from the school community.

Chronic absenteeism, when a student misses more than 10 percent of the school year, has been a sticky problem in Maine, and elsewhere, for some time — in the 2016-17 school year, 16 percent of students were chronically absent. Regular absences hurt students of all age – they keep young students from reaching reading level, and are a good indicator that a student will eventually drop out.

Schools in South Portland and Lewiston, among others, have had success in tracking absences and responding quickly to target individual students and their families.

But while many of the barriers keeping students from regularly attending school are the same no matter where they attend, the solutions for urban and suburban schools are not quite the same as those for rural schools — and rural schools rank among those doing the worst.

School Administrative District 74 in Anson has an answer. As reported by Rachel Ohm of the Morning Sentinel, SAD 74 has molded the student-by-student, family-by-family approach to fit its small community.


At Carrabec Community School, with a K-8 enrollment of 280, Principal Tom Desjardins calls parents to check in when their kids miss school. If he can’t reach them or the absences continue to pile up, he drops by their house. Sometimes, he brings a social worker, and together they deliver homework assignments and work with the family on whatever is keeping the kid from school.

Sometimes the problem is lack of food or heat. Sometimes it’s health care, as many poor people in rural areas have to travel far for care, and often struggle with chronic illness. Sometimes it’s a lack of transportation or an unstable living arrangement.

The school district can help the families identify resources and aid. Just as important, they are showing families that often have a sour history with the court system or social services that the school community is on their side.

In a little over a year, the chronic absenteeism rate for Carrabec Community School dropped from 36 percent to 24. At the high school, the rate dropped from 23 percent to 14.

The Legislature made progress on this issue recently by passing a law that allows schools to use their full suite of truancy resources on families whose 5- or 6-year-olds have signed up for school but fail to attend regularly – previously, truancy laws only applied to students 7 and older. The new law will give schools another tool to use to make sure students aren’t missing valuable classroom time.

SAD 74, however, is showing that struggling parents don’t have to be forced to send their kids to school. When their kids miss school, something else is going on — and together, families and schools can figure it out.

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