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Maine Schools Grappling With Chronic Absenteeism

Roughly 10-15 percent of the K-12 student population in the U.S. is not attending school on a regular basis, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In Maine, students are considered “chronically absent” when they miss 18 or more school days in an entire year.

Missing this much time, especially during elementary school, is linked to negative educational outcomes, such as higher dropout rates and lower levels of literacy.

An elementary school in Windham has been working for several years to address this problem.

Kyle Rhodes has been a principal in Maine for 13 years. For the first 5, he was able to figure out, pretty quickly, when students were, or were not, at school.

“At my prior school, I would get a daily attendance report,” he says.

But there was no such report when Rhodes arrived at Windham Primary School 8 years ago. No fast, efficient way to find out how many kids were absent or late on a given day. Rhodes says that made it more difficult to intervene earlier with a growing group of students who had missed 18 days or more of school, the chronically absent kids.

Rhodes says the school took a more punitive approach to the problem: sending home formal warning letters and making phone calls. But there was little coordination about how best to help these kids get back on track.

“We wanted to improve the situation,” he says. “Many teachers had expressed concerns with students not being in school and what else could we do. So it seemed like a natural opportunity to work on something that already was of concern for the staff.”

So 4 years ago, Windham Primary began working with Count Me In, an initiative in Cumberland County to reduce chronic absences in elementary schools.

“Just checking the emails here, I just heard from a parent that the student is going to be out due to an illness,” school Secretary Corey McAllister says. “So now I can turn this one to excused absence.”

It’s a little after 9 a.m. Monday morning and McAllister is going through a list of absent students on his computer, in the main office at Windham Primary. To reduce the number of absences, the school first had to do a better of job of monitoring who was and wasn’t at school. So Windham Primary began using an online program called Infinite Campus to track attendance.

At 9:45 a.m., McAllister says the program will begin making automated phone calls to families with absent kids who haven’t checked in.

“Today there were seven,” he says. “The report that the computer sends us shows that five of the people were contacted. Two were actually live contacts, three were answering machines and two of them were unsuccessful.”

Office staff will then follow up with live phone calls. Michelle Patch, the lead counselor at Windham Primary, says the more rigorous daily monitoring of attendance has given the school much greater ability to help chronically absent students and their families.

“I think it because it gives a real guideline for me to work with teachers and increase the awareness of attendance, ‘cause teachers are so busy,” she says. “They have so much going on in their day that part of my job is to say, ‘Hey, have you noticed that this kiddo is at six absences now, what are we doing?’ So I’m working with the teachers, who are working with the families.”

A student intervention team made up of administrators, counselors and teachers meets monthly to go over attendance data. The goal is to get kids onto individualized attendance plans early, so that they never reach the chronic stage of 18 or more absences in a school year.

This early intervention is key. Research shows that kids who miss more than 18 days a year are at increased risk for a wide range of social and academic problems as they continue through school.

So far, Windham’s efforts appear to be paying off. During the 2012-2013 school year, 103 of the school’s roughly 800 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade had 15 or more absences. By the end of last year, that number had dropped to 74 kids.