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Pr. George's school officials, advocates tackle chronic absenteeism

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 7:53 PM

Thousands of struggling elementary students in Maryland remain all but immune to massive and costly efforts to improve public education. The reason is they miss at least a month of class every school year.

State records show that more than 19,000 elementary students - or 6 percent of the total statewide - were absent for more than 20 days in the year that ended in June.

In Prince George's County, where schools serve many children with a host of economic and educational disadvantages, the chronic absence rate for elementary students was nearly 8 percent. At more than 30 county elementary schools it exceeded 10 percent. The figures include absences counted as excused or unexcused.

Maryland is considered the most aggressive state in tracking and disclosing the rates of chronic absence from school. Georgia also spotlights the issue. But such data are not routinely published in the District, Virginia or most other states. The problem, experts say, is national in scope and too often overlooked.

"Better teaching doesn't matter if you don't have kids there to benefit from it," said Hedy N. Chang, director of the San Francisco-based advocacy group Attendance Counts.

Chang said federal data on a national sample of students who entered kindergarten in 1998 show that about one in 10 kindergartners and first-graders miss at least 10 percent of the school year.

Absences are especially damaging in early grades, educators say, because children can fall behind fast in learning the foundations of reading and math. In addition, poor attendance habits at a young age can lead to truancy and dropping out.

With that in mind, some policymakers are taking steps to address chronic absence. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg launched attendance-turnaround experiments in 25 schools this year, citing statistics that show more than 200,000 city students missing at least 20 days of the last school year. California lawmakers approved a measure to track the issue more closely. Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso has launched a major campaign to boost attendance in a city where 14 percent of elementary students are chronically absent.

The Baltimore initiative seeks to alert principals when students begin to miss a string of school days, said Sue Fothergill, an education consultant and Baltimore school parent active on the issue. Then school personnel will reach out to families to figure out the reason for the absenteeism and what can be done. Sometimes students simply need a ride to school. Sometimes they need an extra school uniform or a visit to a health clinic. At one elementary school, Fothergill said, a principal has arranged with a local barbershop to give haircuts to students who may be missing school because of concerns about their personal appearance.

The message from that school, Fothergill said: "No excuses accepted whatsoever."

In the District, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said she has focused on improving attendance-tracking systems to crack down on absenteeism.

"These are in some ways the most vulnerable kids who could fall through the cracks," Rhee said. "We literally have a kid-by-kid count of which students at which schools have a certain number of unexcused absences." Rhee said schools have developed systems to dispatch social workers to homes where students are slipping behind on attendance.

She said the school system is working to make public report cards like Maryland's that convey detailed absence data. In an elementary school with 200 to 300 students, Rhee said, the chronic absence of several students could make the difference between reaching or missing academic performance benchmarks if those students don't score well on standardized tests.

At Panorama Elementary School in the Temple Hills area of Prince George's, administrators are pushing hard to get all students to school on time every day.

The school, with about 400 students, had a chronic absence rate of 21 percent in the last school year. One factor in the absence rate is a group of disabled students who attend a regional special education center at the school. But it's not the only reason.

"A lot of it still falls back on parents," Principal Patricia Wells said Thursday. "Parents really aren't held accountable for getting their kids to school on time."

Wells said she dealt last school year with one family in which three students had erratic attendance. The mother, Wells said, was working as many as three jobs and the father was generally responsible for the family's morning routine. But 7:45 a.m., the school start time, would often come and go without the students in class. "Some days, he just didn't get the boys out," Wells said.

Other students missed school because they were out of the country or had health issues. Sometimes, Wells said, students from families in which little English is spoken missed school because their parents needed them at home to serve as interpreters.

At Panorama Elementary, three in five students come from families poor enough to receive free or reduced-price meals.

The school met state academic benchmarks this year. But Wells is pushing to raise performance and says attendance is crucial. In the main hallway, a bulletin board decorated with race cars and checkered flags tracks the daily attendance percentage for every class. In the principal's office, a poster with an image of President Obama proclaims: "Think about your future. Stay in school."

At the front door that morning, an aide handed out school coupons, redeemable for prizes, to reward students who had lined up outside before 7:45 to go to class.

Just after the Pledge of Allegiance, Wells urged students in her televised announcement: "We want to be spotlighted at all times being focused and most importantly, being ready to learn. Let's be at school on time. We want 100 percent attendance."

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