Poor school attendance is closely related to dropout rates and the achievement gap.
EFFORTS to improve students’ educational outcomes in Washington’s public schools must include a closer look at attendance. Nearly 15 percent of Washington students are chronically absent, which means they miss at least 18 days of school a year, according to state education officials.
It doesn’t matter if those absences include a family trip to Disneyland, chronic illness or just a lack of interest in what is happening in the classroom. Research shows a direct connection between chronic absence and dropout rates.
By sixth grade, chronic absence is a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school, according to the national organization Attendance Works. By ninth grade, attendance is a better indicator of dropout rates than eighth-grade test scores.
More dropouts are unemployed. Few make their way to college or professional job training. And about twice as many prison inmates are dropouts, compared to the general population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The connection between attendance, school failure and lost opportunities are obvious. What isn’t obvious is what to do about it. Some programs have shown good results. It’s time to spend the money to offer the same services at schools around the state.
Paying attention is the first step. AmeriCorps volunteers are working in schools around the Puget Sound to provide a variety of services, including phone calls home when students don’t show up to school. This program, created by dropout-prevention group Communities In Schools, works because it treats every student as a valued member of the school community and works with families to overcome obstacles to attendance and academic success.
Be creative. The Yakima School District has been making slow, but steady progress toward improving its troubling graduation rate, which now hovers around 65 percent. Yakima employs an “every student counts” approach to attendance and graduation, but with a twist. School officials go to the homes of former students to ask what could get them back in school — online classes for credit retrieval, night school, child care, whatever it takes.
Think outside of the K-12 silo. Some of the seeds for education success and failure are sown outside of the K-12 classroom. Quality preschool for Washington’s poorest 3- and 4-year-olds should be a high priority for lawmakers to close the achievement gap. Kids who enter kindergarten behind their classmates are not likely to catch up. Early education also gives kids and families attendance practice. Quality preschool should be part of the state’s definition of basic education.
Reaching parents and students is essential. Washington’s weak truancy law is more likely to send kids to court than back to the classroom. Instead, Tacoma Public Schools focuses its communication with parents on the connection between being in school and learning to read to getting good grades and graduating. Nearly 83 percent of Tacoma’s class of 2016 graduated in four years. The statewide average is 78 percent.
Peer-to-peer efforts are effective. Seattle’s Youth Ambassadors program deploys young people to make the case for school attendance. The ambassadors serve as peer counselors to truant students and mentor them to academic success. Now peer counselors are training high-school students to mentor freshmen toward graduation. A University of Washington study found the Youth Ambassadors program at Cleveland High School had reduced truancy among mentees by 60 percent.
None of these approaches are cheap because they require real people to do the one-on-one counseling. Scaling up will be even more expensive. But if Washington state wants to do something about its achievement gap and graduation rates, better attendance has to be part of the solution.