State education officials released data Tuesday that show about 16 percent of all students in Washington schools — about 174,000 children — were chronically absent during the 2014-15 school year.
That means they missed at least 18 full days — 10 percent of the typical school year. And it counts students with excused and unexcused absences.
In Pierce County during the same school year, the percentages ranged from 6.7 percent in the small Dieringer School District near Lake Tapps to a high of 31.7 percent in Eatonville, according to state data.
In Tacoma, nearly 23 percent were chronically absent that year. In Puyallup, the figure was 19.8 percent.
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Students who aren’t in school, for whatever reason, aren’t learning. And that has educators concerned.
“This is an issue that impacts all aspects of a child’s education,” said Krissy Johnson, who in charge of school attendance at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Even in the early grades, missing too much school can put a child behind. Studies have linked chronic absenteeism to dropping out of high school.
Eatonville Superintendent Krestin Bahr noted her district’s chronic absenteeism rate was significantly lower in 2013 and 2014 — 17.4 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively.
In Tacoma, the numbers were lower in the earlier years: 19.5 percent in 2013 and nearly 17 percent in 2014.
This is an issue that impacts all aspects of a child’s education
Krissy Johnson, OSPI
Bahr checked her district’s internal data, and found anomalies at one school, Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy.
She isn’t sure whether the unusually high numbers were a data entry error, a translation error as the data moved from the internal district system to the state system, or a connectivity issue.
Columbia Crest is in rural Ashford, near Mount Rainier, and maintaining good Internet service at the school has proven a challenge, Bahr said.
She planned to investigate further.
In Tacoma, the district this year developed what it calls its Early Warning System for ninth-graders at its five comprehensive high schools.
Principals get a weekly report on student attendance that ranks students from best to worst attendance. They develop what is known as a “hot list” of students who are missing too much school, and teacher teams review the data and decide how to reach out to each student.
The goal is to keep the interaction informal and positive, said Patrick Cummings, the district’s director of research and evaluation.
Teachers tell students they would like them to come to school, then ask how they can help. Some principals send letters to families, showing how their child’s attendance compares with the school as a whole.
“When parents and students see how they compare to a group, they are often shocked,” Cummings said.
The system is based on what is called the “nudge theory” of social science, which posits that positive interactions and indirect suggestions can have an equal or greater effect on behavior than threats or rule enforcement.
Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said students don’t come to school for many reasons. Tracking down students and meeting with families to find out why they are absent takes staff time and money not always available, she said.
When parents and students see how they compare to a group, they are often shocked
Patrick Cummings, Tacoma Public Schools
State data reveal students from low-income families, students of color and students with disabilities have the highest chronic-absence rates.
Statewide in 2014-15, the rate was 31 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native students and 25 percent for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander students.
The rate was 24 percent among students with 504 plans, which offer accommodations based on a health issue or disability.
State Superintendent Randy Dorn said in a news release that the state is “working with our community and education partners to better understand the causes of chronic absenteeism.”
Among those listed by his agency:
▪ Parents who feel absences are only a problem if they’re unexcused.
▪ A belief that attendance isn’t important in early grades.
▪ Chronic diseases such as asthma.
▪ Lack of health and dental care.
▪ Students who are drafted to care for younger siblings when parents can’t.
▪ Unmet needs from food to clothing.
▪ Transportation problems. Middle-class students who miss the bus might get a ride from parents; those in lower-income families often have no way to get to school.
▪ Students who avoid school because of problems with bullying.
▪ Students who are disconnected from school and not engaged with learning.