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Study shows number of students chronically absent jumped significantly

absent, truancy, Helios, WestEd, K-8, attendance, schools, Kavanagh

In this April 17, 2020, file photo dormant school buses are secured at a facility in Tempe. Helios Education Foundation, in partnership with WestEd, headed research on chronic absences rates and found in 2021, one in five K-8 students in Arizona schools was chronically absent. (AP Photo/Matt York)

A stepfather was struggling to get his two kids to school.  

The mother of the children had passed away. And the stepfather found his work schedule conflicted with the school’s, making it so he could not get his kids to and from school.  

He saw no choice but to withdraw the kids from school. But Betsy Hargrove, superintendent of Avondale Elementary School District, intervened.  

She worked with the school and the transportation department, found the nearest bus stop and worked to fit a timeframe that could co-exist with the stepfather’s schedule, with help from other family members to fill in the gaps.  

Hargrove knows every instance of chronic absences comes with its own set of circumstances. And she knows addressing attendance hardly falls into a one-size-fits-all model.  

Through individual intervention, partnerships with local entities, data analysis and internal programs at schools, Hargrove’s district halved the percentage of students chronically absent before the Covid pandemic and continues to work to keep chronic absence rates low.  

“We’ve been able to hone in on what’s happening with a child or groups of children and are able to offset the barriers,” Hargrove said. 

A chronic absentee is a student who is absent, either excused or unexcused, for 10% of a given school year. In Arizona, this equates to about 18 absences from a 180-day school year.  

Chronic absence rates have been trending upward in the state, spiking among K-8 students following the pandemic.  

Helios Education Foundation, in partnership with WestEd, headed research on chronic absences rates and found in 2021, one in five K-8 students in Arizona schools was chronically absent.  

The learning loss from absences, compounded with learning loss from the pandemic, continues to threaten student mobility and drop-out rates.  

And the data showed economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, Indigenous, Black or African American and Hispanic students are disproportionately impacted.  

In a panel hosted by Helios on Wednesday, Hargrove, as well as Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, Terri Clark of Read On Arizona and president of Helios Paul Luna, spoke about where the state stands in seeing and addressing chronic absences. 

The number of students chronically absent jumped 57% from 2019 to 2022 in Arizona. 

“The key to improving attendance is understanding why kids are missing in the first place,” Chang said.  

She said lower income students typically lack the resources to make up for lost learning opportunities in the classroom, making it so chronic absence is likely having an even greater impact on academic achievement. 

According to Chang, there are four categories encompassing why students miss school.  

The first are barriers, such as chronic illness, lack of transportation, unstable housing and community violence. The second is aversion, when students feel unhappy or out of place at school because of falling behind in courses or facing bullying or harassment.  

And aversion often gives way to the third category, disengagement, where students do not see schooling connecting to their futures and do not generally feel grounded in their school community. 

Chang noted staffing shortages, specifically among counselors and other support staff, has contributed to the disconnect. 

“There aren’t those relationships at schools with stable staff to connect and pull kids,” Chang said.  

Chang said the last category was misconception, where parents and students do not understand how absences connect with learning loss.  

Terri Clark, Arizona Literacy Director with Read On Arizona, emphasized how vital attendance was in early schooling. And without consistent attendance behaviors, students are more likely to fall behind.  

Read On Arizona announced the launch of MapLit, a database tracking early literacy. Absence data stands as one of the key factors in tracking. 

Both Clark and Chang note that there is no evidence punitive measures, like suspension or legal action, play any role in staving off chronic absences.  

And some lawmakers seem to agree as well.  

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, introduced legislation Wednesday making it so any student suspended for nonattendance or truancy would not miss school but would instead be put in an isolated location and given academic work for the suspension period.  

 

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