By Marian Wright Edelman
President of the Children’s Defense Fund
As a new school year begins, parents, teachers and administrators are all thinking about how to make it the best year ever. One of the keys to student success sounds very simple but can make a profound difference: making sure every student is in school every day. This is not the case in many schools and school districts across the country. The Department of Education estimates that five to seven and a half million students miss 18 or more days of school each year, or nearly an entire month or more.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a school year for any reason. As part of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice have joined together to launch Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism. I was honored to participate in their national symposium to share what the Children’s Defense Fund has learned since our first report in 1974, Children Out of School in America. We found from examining census data that at least 2 million children were out of school for at least 3 months, including 750,000 between 7-13 years old. But there was no clear information on who they were or why they were out of school — so we knocked on thousands of doors in a variety of census tracts across our country to find and ask families why their children were home and not in school.
We learned that the large number of 7-13 year olds were children with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Another large group were children pushed out by discipline policies who never returned to school. In Holyoke, Massachusetts, we found children who had recently migrated from Puerto Rico staying home when it got cold because they had no winter coats. In a rural Maine community we found children who couldn’t afford the local school district’s transportation fees and were unaware that the state would reimburse the local district for transportation costs. In other states like Kentucky the key barriers were book fees. We wrote: “If a child was not White, or was White but not middle class, did not speak English, was poor, needed special help with seeing, hearing, walking, reading, learning, adjusting, growing up, was pregnant or married at age 15, was not ‘smart enough’ or was ‘too smart,’ then, in too many places, school officials decided school was not the place for that child. In sum, out of school children shared a common characteristic of differentness by virtue of race, income, physical, mental or emotional ‘handicap,’ and age. They were for the most part, out of school not by choice but because they had been excluded. It is as if many school officials had decided that certain groups of children were beyond their responsibility and were expendable. They excluded them arbitrarily, discriminatorily and with impunity.”
We’ve made enormous progress since then, especially for students with disabilities. After our report on Children Out of School in America, CDF and others worked together to push Congress to pass legislation that for the first time gave children with disabilities the federal right to a free, appropriate public education. But we haven’t solved the children out of school crisis. Children on the margins remain at greatest risk for some of the same reasons we documented more than 40 years ago.
A recent National Public Radio story on absenteeism featured Johns Hopkins scholar Robert Balfanz, who studies chronic school absenteeism, and a high-poverty elementary school in Baltimore making strides tackling the problem: “[Balfanz] has studied high school dropouts for years, and in his research he kept seeing a red flag: chronic absences in elementary and middle school. Students who miss a couple days a month fall behind in reading — and if they can’t read, they can’t pass tests. ‘To miss a month of school when you’re 11 and 12, there’s got to be something behind that,’ Balfanz says — and at Wolfe Street Academy, there was. ‘The list included things like tooth decay, mental health issues, and not having a winter coat.’”
The Department of Education sees chronic absenteeism as: “a primary cause of low academic achievement and a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school.” Chronic absenteeism is not to be confused with the problem of children being truant from school. Often when a child skips school, he is labeled as a discipline problem and ends up being suspended or expelled and sometimes even referred to law enforcement for action. We must prevent suspensions and expulsions for truancy. I have never understood why we put a child out of school for not coming to school instead of finding out why the child is not in school.
The Department of Education is now collecting the right data and doing something about chronic absenteeism by promoting ideas we know work. One common sense idea goes all the way back to our days of knocking on doors: More school districts are starting each morning by having staff call or visit every family whose child is absent from school to find out why. Others also connect with families as the school year begins. Some schools are making strides connecting eligible but unenrolled children with health insurance as they enroll in school, allowing those children to get the regular care they need to stay healthy and ready to learn. Some are partnering with health clinics to allow children to be treated on-site for chronic conditions like asthma that contribute to days of lost class time and which can now be addressed in a few minutes out of class. The Children’s Defense Fund and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, have partnered with school districts for more than a decade to develop a simple system that works. A new toolkit, “Happy, Healthy and Ready to Learn: Insure All Children!” to be released later in August, captures the lessons learned and provides resources for school districts to create their own programs with community partners.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is partnering with the Department of Education to promote housing stability for families so children aren’t kept out of school when they move frequently and lack necessary school records. Wraparound services also help keep children in school. Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, for example, provides a box of donated coats and other clothes in the cafeteria and like other community schools, provides mental health and dental services and a wide range of programs encouraging parents to get involved in their school community.
Many schools provide mentoring services to make sure students feel supported, nurtured, and encouraged to be there. The simple truth is every child needs to feel welcome at school and know that they will be missed by someone at school if they miss a day. Schools must make learning engaging and fun and always keep the children at the center. Those are the schools every child will look forward to going to every day.