Educators look at attendance as one of the three big indicators — the “ABC’s” — of student success. Research has long connected attendance, behavior and course performance with graduation rates.
September, the first full month of classes at Bellingham Public Schools, is Attendance Awareness Month. School officials are focusing this month — and all year long, for that matter — on connecting with students who are missing a lot of school.
Bellingham also started a new program this month to try to catch students with a large number of unexcused absences before they end up in truancy court.
The state keeps data on rates of chronic absenteeism for each school district. For the most recent year of available data, 2015-16, Bellingham was right at the state average with 16.7 percent of students meeting the definition of “chronically absent” — missing the equivalent of 18 days in a year, or 10 percent of school days, whether the absences are excused or unexcused.
Some groups are more at risk for chronic absenteeism than others. Bellingham had 559 students who were homeless in 2015-16, and 37.6 percent of those students were chronically absent. Among students in families defined as low-income — numbering more than 5,000 in Bellingham — 23.3 percent were chronically absent. Of the nearly 2,000 Bellingham students who identify as Hispanic, 20.4 percent were chronically absent.
Bellingham’s family engagement team works hard to provide basic needs for vulnerable families, including those with low income and those recently arriving from other countries. As part of the Bellingham Promise, the school district removes financial barriers to participation by providing school supplies. Beyond that, the approach to combating chronic absenteeism is to try to reach students individually, whatever their reasons for missing so much school.
“Causes for absenteeism can run deep,” said Keith Schacht, a director of teaching and learning at Bellingham schools. “For some students who are in crisis, attendance can seem like the least of their worries, even though we know coming to school can help a student who is struggling. It can help provide a secure and loving space with structure, food and of course, time to reflect, learn and think.”
Individual outreach can include talking with parents, teaming students with mentors, or — for students with at least five unexcused absences in a month, or 10 in a year — sending the student to truancy court. The best overall solution, officials said, is creating a welcoming environment in the schools.
“We have to give them a reason to come to school,” Schacht said.
“It’s The Bellingham Promise,” said Steve Morse, also a director of teacher and learning who works closely with Schacht on improving attendance. “All children should be loved. The message to students is, ‘We care about you. We miss you when you’re gone.'”
Each school takes responsibility for connecting with its students. Programs such as Harbor — formerly Anchor — at Sehome High School seek to create a family-like environment in what can be an overwhelmingly large social space. All high schools have instituted the Link Crew program, in which upperclassmen help incoming freshmen make the transition from middle school. Students who participate in athletics or school clubs are more likely to attend school. Teams or clubs, again, provide that close-knit culture that motivates students to come to school.
If a student’s absences aren’t excused by a parent or guardian, state law requires school districts to refer the student to juvenile court. Starting this month, Bellingham Public Schools is instituting a Community Truancy Board, as a last measure to try to reach a student before he or she ends up in court. A practice run of the Community Truancy Board toward the end of the 2016-17 school year was successful. The one student who attended his hearing began attending school regularly afterward.
The notion of a truancy board and the juvenile court system can seem unfriendly or daunting on its face, but that’s not what this student said in comments to school staff after his experience.
What did this student tell Schacht when the two ran into each other at school recently?
“It was apparent that people cared,” Schacht said.