Report shows role of classroom, community factors in improving student attendance

Compared to much of the rest of the country, Connecticut fares better on both rates of chronic absenteeism among students and community factors, such as poverty and health, a new map from The Brookings Institution shows.

The interactive graphic was released in conjunction with a new report from the nonprofits Attendance Works and American Institutes for Research, "Using Chronic Absence Data to Improve Conditions for Learning."

Students are considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more days of school in a year, whether it's excused, unexcused or for a suspension, though the Brookings map uses the share of students who missed more than 15 days. Its data came from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Nearly 8 million students were chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent one for which national data is available, and in about a quarter of the 94,553 schools surveyed, at least 20 percent of students were chronically absent, the report says.

The map shows Flanders School in East Lyme with a 0 percent chronic absenteeism rate for the 2015-16 school year, with Preston Veterans' Memorial School at the next lowest in southeastern Connecticut, at 1.3 percent.

Harbor Elementary School in New London saw the highest rate, at 39.7 percent.

Lauren Bauer, economics fellow at The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, said the best use of the interactive map is to put a school in context and look for outliers.

"There are schools with low rates of chronic absence in places that may not seem as hospitable to that, and the opposite of that is true, as well," she said.

That hospitableness is measured by a "community factors index" that includes high school dropout rates, employment-to-population ratio, median household income, child poverty rates, uninsured child rates, child housing stability, residential racial segregation, life expectancy and air quality. A score is applied to each ZIP code.

The top-scoring ZIP codes in the region are the ones for Salem, North Stonington and East Lyme north of Interstate 95, while the lowest are for New London, Norwich and Uncasville.

But the only school in the Uncasville ZIP code, Mohegan School, had an absenteeism rate of 2.4 percent, lower than the average of any other ZIP code.

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said she has a fairly long history of working with the Connecticut State Department of Education, which she said has taken great efforts to "build the capacity of school districts to monitor and look at" chronic absenteeism data.

More broadly speaking, Chang said, chronic absenteeism is a sign a student is off-track for academic success, whether that means reading proficiently in third grade, graduating from high school or even persisting in college.

When chronic absenteeism is affecting large numbers of students, it's a sign of systemic challenges, she said, such as bullying, poor disciplinary practices or unfavorable community conditions, such as unstable housing.

"Unlike most academic or social-emotional measures, it can be monitored on an ongoing basis," Chang said, meaning educators can invest before students are so far behind it's difficult to catch up.

The report included case studies of successes in Georgia and Cleveland.

It said Georgia state government is working to increase the number of school nurses and incentivize affordable-housing developers to "build properties that include supports addressing barriers to educational attainment."

Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent of the Office of School Safety and Climate in the Georgia Department of Education, noted the "significant body of research" showing a link between school climate and student attendance, and said the state's climate rating system is based on anonymous surveys from students, parents and teachers.

In Cleveland, students who were chronically absent scored 12 points lower on standardized reading tests and 15 points lower on math, district director of attendance Lorri Hobson said.

She said the "Get 2 School, You Can Make It!" campaign also involved the Cleveland Browns Foundation, McDonald's, grocery stores, parent organizations and unions. Its efforts included college scholarship opportunities, giveaways and celebrations, phone banking, social media posts and a redesign of the attendance office.

The messaging also changed from "legalistic approaches that pre-judge families" to messaging the importance of being in school, Hobson said.

e.moser@theday.com

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