Classrooms in Monroe County’s schools reflect a statewide problem – chronic absenteeism. Missing school days not only hurts the student by missing out on instruction time but also school districts by missing out on funding.
The Mississippi Department of Education recently released its annual report on chronic absenteeism.
The highest rates reported per district across Mississippi varied from 21.77 percent to 25.66 percent. Numbers reported for districts in Monroe County fell closer to the lowest rates, but they didn’t quite make the top 10 districts with lowest chronic absenteeism rates, which topped out at less than five percent.
According to the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), chronic absenteeism occurs when any student is absent 10 percent (18 days per year) or more for any reason during the school year.
The MDE cited findings from studies that identified several factors contributing to chronic absenteeism, including fear of violence on the way to school, alienation from school, bullying, caring for younger siblings and strict discipline policies that push students out of school.
The impacts on the student range from missing early learning milestones to ultimately dealing with issues of poverty and delinquency in adulthood.
Efforts to reach out to families emphasize understanding that every day matters, and how the development of good lifestyle patterns will help the student to succeed in school now and in the workplace later.
As highlighted in the latest MDE report, the chronic absenteeism rate for Mississippi decreased from 16.86 percent in the 2017-18 school year to 13.05 percent in 2018-19 school year.
The current statewide rate is the lowest rate reported since the MDE has been calculating and reporting chronic absenteeism rates. The districts with the lowest numbers at less than five percent were Claiborne and newly consolidated Clarksdale Collegiate, while the district with the highest chronic absenteeism rate was Amite at 25.66 percent.
Aberdeen School District
Aberdeen School District Superintendent Jeff Clay summarizes his outreach campaign about chronic absenteeism in two words: Attendance Matters!
“We created a movie trailer for social media with that theme that is being distributed among our staff,” he said.
Clay estimates the cost of absenteeism to the district at $18 to $20 per student per day missed.
“Everything leads to graduation. Everything builds on previous objectives,” he said.
Clay said reaching out to parents and the community about absenteeism requires honest dialogue.
“We need to raise the bar beyond minimum performance just to get by. We keep everyone in the loop by talking to each other. We need to create a desire in our students that makes them want to be in school. We’re working on that, though we have a ways to go,” he said.
Incentives practiced in the Aberdeen School District include allowing students who have perfect attendance to march with the band in parades. They are also issued lunch line passes that permit them to go to the front of the line. They can use the extra time to encourage colleagues that it doesn’t take making an A to get to the front of the line; it just requires being there every day.
The school has limited ability to intervene in some areas such as problems arising from unmanaged health. One of the most common ailments reported statewide is asthma, followed by diabetes, according to the MDE report. Other problems that were mentioned in the report include mental health and anxiety issues.
“Anxiety is real,” he said, citing experience within his own family. “We can talk about it if we can connect.”
The Aberdeen School District employs interventionists to assist struggling students.
“If a student thinks their issues are real, we have to address them. If we can make the connection, we can build a relationship that cultivates trust and creates motivation on the part of the student to want to be there,” Clay said.
Bullying is another factor that could lead to absenteeism. Staff members of the Aberdeen School District are combating bullying with the Stop It smart phone app, which allows threatening behavior to be reported and forwarded to a multi-tiered system of interventionists while preserving the student’s anonymity.
“Nobody wants to be a snitch,” Clay said.
The school district does not participate in the statewide attendance campaign, “Strive for Less than Five, preferring to tailor its mentoring efforts in a more individualized way.
“We’re doing different things, but our goal is an average daily attendance of 96 percent or better.”
Amory School District
Amory School District Superintendent Ken Byars was quick to tout proactive measures taken in the district to offset chronic absenteeism, which tends to peak toward the 12th grade throughout the state, according to the MDE report.
“Our trend is atypical to the statewide pattern,” Byars said, reflecting on Amory High School’s 6.79 percent chronic absenteeism rate when compared to the statewide average of a little more than 13 percent. “We hired a graduation coach at Amory High School that tracks all students beginning at ninth grade to keep them on track to fulfill graduation requirements.”
Byars credits the high school’s PRIDE program, began last year, in that students are paired with an advisor to work with the graduation coach. The program utilizes periodic small group meetings with students and advisors and one-on-one sessions as needed.
“Students have the same advisor throughout their four years at the school, which nurtures a relationship built on trust,” Byars said.
Furthermore, he touted that the district has the highest average daily attendance on record, standing at 97 percent two months into the current school year.
“Different factors affect absenteeism. Criteria is scattered all across the spectrum, so it’s difficult to isolate any particular group or area. We’re trying to cut out unnecessary absences,” Byars said.
At entry level, he pointed out that the higher absenteeism figures for kindergarten skewed the true picture since the accountability model begins with attendance figures from first grade.
Monroe County School District
Monroe County Superintendent of Education Brian Jernigan wants to communicate with parents that chronic absenteeism affects more than academics.
“When students miss, they not only penalize academic progress but miss out on socialization with peers.”
Jernigan furthermore pointed out that absenteeism creates double work for both the student and staff that help with remediation to get the student caught up.
The Monroe County School District uses automated calls to remind parents when children miss.
“Our automated calls go out at every absence. If absenteeism persists, a school attendance officer will make personal visits to the home. We have an early warning system in collaboration with mentoring that generates reports on at-risk situations,” Jernigan said.
He said some schools in his district are developing surveys in that parents can share experiences anonymously about why children are skipping school.
“We’re digging into this. While we try to plug students into a suitable career path, some don’t have a vision of where they could be after high school,” Jernigan said.
He also shared that the schools in his district combat absenteeism by offering exemptions from exams with suitable grades and attendance.
He observed that there is a culture change in that students are challenged to improve soft skills to make them more competitive in the marketplace.
“We network a lot with other districts for ideas and feedback,” he said.
Nettleton School District
Nettleton School District Superintendent Tim Dickerson is a proponent of having one-on-one conversations with students who miss a lot of school.
“The conversations are important so we can identify options to help,” he said. “Other than cases of sickness, students may be afraid of not being ready for a test or trying to avoid disciplinary consequences. Family issues may be involved where parents don’t encourage their children to attend school.”
Dickerson shares Jernigan’s concern that students with chronic absenteeism miss instruction, have gaps in developing skill sets and miss out on social interaction with peers.
“Academic success will drop, which involves more teacher time for remedial work to get the students caught up. It creates a backlog of work for the student,” he said.
Where health problems are a part of the picture, a full-time nurse is on staff to access and address health needs. Dickerson is working toward establishing an on-campus clinic where non-emergency needs such as immunizations can be provided.
Nettleton schools use a mentoring program utilizing a team-based support system that provides confidential interaction with at-risk students.
“We work toward the most efficient use of available funding to improve accountability, thereby contributing to the success of our school and community,” he said.