Excused or Not, What Chronic Absenteeism Means for a Student’s Future

empty-chair-resize1Students cannot learn if they are absent from school. A student who is not attending school is considered “truant” and is subject to the laws and school regulations that address this behavior. Both attendance and truancy rates are reported by the Colorado Department of Education and can be found on the SchoolView data center.  Yet there are limitations to the definition of truancy, which is why chronic absenteeism is emerging as another concern.

The main distinction is that chronic absenteeism places an emphasis on missing any days of school regardless if the days are excused or not. Truancy does not factor in excused days. “Excused” is sometimes different based on local school district practice and administrators. What is more, high school age students can—legally—stop attending school on their seventeenth birthday in Colorado. There are, clearly, implications to this. Chronic absenteeism considers all students until they graduate.

So what is chronic absenteeism? In short, it is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year or at least 15 days. Once again, it makes no difference whether days were excused or not. As can be expected, chronic absenteeism “is a primary cause of low-academic achievement and a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school.” (Every Student, Every Day).

The Department of Education, utilizing information from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), goes on to say that over 6 million students in 2013-2014 missed 15 days or more, which is basically one out of every eight students or 13 percent. Yet when you look at chronic absenteeism by grade those numbers change with more and more students chronically absent at the high-school level.  This has enormous implications for our organization, and many others, which focus on engaging high school students with the purpose of graduating. Here’s the breakdown by grade:

  • 1 in 10 (10 percent) Elementary School
  • 1 in 8 (12 percent) Middle School
  • 1 in 5 (20 percent) High School

Chronic absenteeism also impacts minority students more than white students. 22.2 percent of American Indian and Pacific Islander students are impacted the most, followed by 16.4 percent of Black students, 13.3 percent of Latino/Latina students, and 12.2 percent of white students. The CRDC also shows that chronic absenteeism “spikes” for all students in high school regardless of race or ethnicity.

We are particularly interested in chronic absenteeism and how to apply this current research to our work. We are interested in it as both a prevention lens to help us keep youth in school, as well as a means of understanding our students who have left school and are now returning. Chronic absenteeism, because it looks at excused and non-excused absences, allows for a more direct identification of high-risk students. It also has enormous implications for system-involved youth who are sometimes chronically absent for reasons beyond their control.

A study from the University of Utah found that “for each year that a student is chronically absent, his or her odds of dropping out approximately double.”  So whether the student is excused or not, missing school has enormous consequences for their future.

A Juggling Act: Data, Outcomes and Youth Development

As a nonprofit in the youth development field, there are often many objectives to juggle. They often require some debate and conversation to get it right. One particular juggling act is balancing the need for data collection and outcomes with the need to remain open-minded and youth centered. That is, it’s important to approach everyone as an individual and not a “number” as it is often said. This debate recently came to light with the development of some new programming.

For example, when starting a new program, it’s truly important to allow the facts to speak. It’s important to not bring a lot of assumptions, especially those made from previous programming, about how the youth will respond. We should allow the solutions, and even the exact target population, to emerge. Individual circumstances should guide the work and this can take time. People have different needs. Every city is different. Every school is different. You can never be quite sure.

Yet it’s equally important to have a clear outcome, which will help steer things in the right direction. It’s important to have research and use the existing evidence as much as possible. It’s also necessary to consider how things will translate into numbers and how it might translate into a data system or a report, as much as no one wants to turn someone into a number.

Clearly, the roles people have play a big part in their approach and where they land in the debate. Within our organization, we recognize that we are truly fortunate to have both of these perspectives in one place. The youth, in our opinion, really benefit from a program model that has been created and analyzed utilizing multiple perspectives.

There is, however, one thing we all agree on: A strict, linear approach isn’t going to happen. The youth we support have very complex lives and it is absolutely necessary to respect their experiences and allow for a true partnership. Whatever the answer and approach ends up being, it has to retain the deepest respect for the youth. It must be broad enough to allow for all the variations, but narrow enough to provide a sufficient amount of support.

We also all agree that it takes a lot of heart to do this work. Even our most analytic, number driven people wouldn’t be here if they didn’t feel a strong connection to our mission, and more importantly, to our students. This work takes compassion and patience from everyone. It also requires courage because we have to advocate—at all levels—for students.

There is perhaps one last thing we all agree on: We have to laugh and enjoy our time with the students (and each other).

So where do we stand as an organization? In short, we’re committed to drawing from both perspectives and incorporating them into our work. What this means for us is that we have to be open and collaborative when starting something new. Communication and respect are the cornerstones. We also have to be open to growing and the occasional revision. We have to be open to a kind of cognitive diversity where different people come together with differing viewpoints and approaches.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Rise of Colorado’s Dropout Rate

As we start the new school year, we reflect on last year’s dropout rate. After eight years of steady decline, the dropout rate in Colorado has gone up. While the percentage itself doesn’t seem like a wide swing, when you look at the raw numbers and imagine the future for each of those youth, a sense of urgency returns. Ideally we would see this number continue to go down until disappearing. After all the hard work schools and communities have invested into developing systems and supports for these students, why is it going up?

Before looking at those questions, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. If we go back two years or at least two cycles ago for the data—to the 2012-2013 school year—the dropout rate was 2.5 percent. It was 2.5 percent last year too. Here’s a quick view of dropout numbers:

  • 2014-2015: 11,114 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2013-2014: 10,546 Students, 2.4 Percent Dropout Rate
  • 2012-2013: 10,664 Students, 2.5 Percent Dropout Rate

You’ll notice that while the dropout rate was the same, there were 450 more students who dropped out last year compared to 2012-2013. This is because there are more students attending school in Colorado, which is impacting both the number of students and the rate. However, I think we would all agree that 450 students is a lot. And 11,114 students are too many.

So what is happening? It is uncertain right now, but we have two lines of thinking.

Our first line is that the improved job market is providing students with other avenues besides graduation. In the past, there were no jobs and so school increased the prospects of getting a job. Connected to this issue is the increased cost of living in our rapidly changing state. The high cost of rent is requiring some youth to work to support their families. For the long term, we know that having an education is absolutely essential.

Our next line of thinking is that these students are facing extreme barriers. While the schools and communities have made dramatic steps forward in helping these students, we might be nearing the end of those developments. The issues they face, like extreme poverty, sexual orientation, homelessness, court involvement, and the foster care system—to name just a few—go beyond what any single agency or school can solve.

As things move forward we hope to understand why the rate went up. Whatever the exact answers might be, we believe it will take broad coordination between all youth-serving agencies and organizations to see the next eight year reduction in the dropout rate.

The Issues Impacting Youth and Their Families: The Educational Divide

Program staff and AmeriCorps members with Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC) speak to hundreds of youth each year about their education. Some of these youth are still in school, but are beginning to struggle–failing a core class or having issues with attendance. Some of these youth have left school altogether and are considered a “dropout” with an uncertain future. When we speak with these youth, we find that there are many reasons for their current predicament. Very rarely do we find that it’s simply an act of rebellion. It’s often systemic and connected to larger social issues like poverty, system involvement, or their sexual orientation.

These conversations follow a strict rule of youth development: Meet the youth where they are at. We do this for a couple of reasons. One is because it’s important to give them the chance to speak with their own voice and describe things in their own words. Many of these youth feel disempowered and carried along by forces beyond their control. It’s necessary to make them an active agent in their process and we do this by listening. The other reason is it’s important to understand where they are currently, and where they can go in the future. We want to grasp their situation correctly and create a plan that is attainable and inspires them to reach their full potential.

Yet an aspect of meeting them where they are at–and listening without bias–is that we learn about new issues impacting youth and their families. This is especially poignant in a state like Colorado, which is quickly becoming one of the most expensive states in the country. We intend to further explore this in a future blog post.

Because of this and our experiences supporting youth in multiple schools and school districts across Colorado, we have decided to bring a focused effort to sharing our understanding, as well as our data, through this blog. We hope that people will find our observations and insights valuable. We also hope to connect with broader research and practices and show that helping youth with school is important, not only for them, but for the communities we live in as well.

About: The Educational Divide

The Educational Divide blog is created by Colorado Youth for a Change.  Colorado Youth for a change is working to help in-school youth stay in school and out-of-school youth get back into school. Because of our experiences supporting youth in multiple schools and school districts across Colorado, we have decided to bring a focused effort to sharing our understanding, as well as our data. We hope that people will find our observations and insights valuable. We also hope to connect with broader research and practices and show that helping youth with school is important, not only for them, but for the communities we live in as well.

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