About 16 percent of all students in Washington are “chronically absent,” meaning they miss 18 or more school days a year, according to data released this week by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Those numbers reflect both unexcused and excused absences, according to Krissy Johnson with OSPI. Most school districts in Thurston County were near or below the state’s average.
Tumwater School District had the worst attendance record, with 17.9 percent of its nearly 6,300 students reported as chronically absent.
“We’re concerned about the numbers, and we have work to do,” said Tumwater Superintendent John Bash. “And it’s important work.”
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District officials plan to dive into the data, see how Tumwater’s numbers compare with districts that are similar demographically, and look for strategies that other districts have used to improve their student attendance, he said.
“We welcome this kind of data because it helps inform our school and improvement planning efforts,” Bash said.
In Thurston County, the district with the lowest absentee rate is Griffin, a K-8 district that reported that 4.91 percent of its nearly 650 kids are chronically absent.
The data are part of a series of performance indicators OSPI hopes school districts will use to boost student achievement.
“When students aren’t in school — for any reason — it’s harder for them to learn what they need to know to be successful,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said in a news release. “We are working with our community and education partners to better understand the causes of chronic absenteeism. It’s important for kids to get to school, even in the youngest grades.”
The data also looked into chronic absenteeism by demographic. Students who live in poverty, those with disabilities and students of color have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, Johnson said.
About 16.4 percent of the nearly 1,200 students in the Tenino School District racked up 18 or more absences during the 2014-15 school year. Superintendent Joe Belmonte said the rate is lower than it was two years ago, and up at little from last year.
“It’s higher than we want,” he said.
The district’s rates were similar to those in neighboring districts, including Rochester, Rainier and Centralia, he said.
Tenino recently began a truancy board, which is aimed at helping curb unexcused absences. Belmonte said poverty and the district’s rural location appear to be two of the biggest factors in its absentee rates.
“If a family doesn’t have transportation, it’s really tough on them,” he said. “I think it’s one of those multilayer dynamics in the community; that if a kid misses the bus, it may be there’s not another way to get here.”
Belmonte said the district also struggles with a percentage of families and community members who haven’t historically felt connected or seen value in its schools.
“We want kids to see there is a value, there is a purpose to coming to school,” Belmonte said.
As a result, the district has joined with Together and other community organizations to draw more support for its schools.
“We’re partnering with the Boys & Girls Club to have a club start here in Tenino,” Belmonte said.
Thurston County’s largest school system, North Thurston Public Schools, had a chronic absenteeism rate of 11.6 percent, which was similar to the neighboring districts of Olympia and Yelm.
“At the elementary level, we consider more than 12 days chronic,” said Becky Lee, principal at Seven Oaks Elementary School in Lacey.
She said her school staff members try to work with families whose children are chronically tardy or absent. For example, they’ve purchased alarm clocks for families. In some circumstances, they have staff members who pick up kids who have missed a school bus, Lee said.
“Kind of whatever it takes,” she added.
The Rochester School District’s chronic absentee rate is just below the state’s average, at 15.47 percent.
Kim Fry, superintendent of the nearly 2,250-student district in south Thurston County, said kids sometimes miss school for understandable reasons.
“You have the loss of a parent, by all means you should not be at school,” she said. “You have an illness, you should be at home getting well.”
But optional reasons — including family vacations scheduled during the school year when cheaper flights are available — also factor into the district’s attendance numbers.
“Most students can miss a day here and there and overcome that, but when you get to the level where you’ve missed 18 days, it starts to look more like Swiss cheese,” Fry said.
“There’s holes all over in the learning.”
And even if a student is doing fine academically, chronic absenteeism is disruptive to classroom routines and sends message about the value of school and good attendance, she said.
“There’s this social impact — you start feeling less a part of the system,” Fry said. “Kids can feel disconnected from school on a social and emotional level as a result of missing school.”
One of the district’s goals is to help get students in grades six to 10 to feel more connected to school, in hopes of increasing attendance and improving academic performance, Fry said.
Rochester is offering Advanced Via Individual Determination, a college prep program that emphasizes organization, teamwork, communication and study skills. The program is offered in nearly 5,000 schools across the country, and is designed to develop “a sense of hope for personal achievement gained through hard work and determination,” according to AVID’s website.
“And hopefully will encourage them to have better attendance,” Fry said.