Cinthia is 17 years old and in the 11th grade at a high school in Tacoma, Washington. “I want to be someone,” she says. "I want a job after high school."
A high school diploma, however, is still out of reach for Cinthia. She struggles with depression, and the normal school day is often overwhelming for her. There have been many days – too many days – where she’s opted to stay home instead of facing the burden of classwork. “Going to school is really hard. I’d rather stay home.”
Cinthia is one of many “chronically absent” students that Washington struggles with. The state has the second highest rate of chronically absent students in the country with 17% of students missing 18 or more days of school per year. These students often struggle to catch up once they’ve started falling behind.
The Department of Education released a report on chronic absenteeism in 2016 detailing the negative impacts these students stand to face. One study included in the report “found that an incidence of chronic absenteeism in even a single year between 8th and 12th grade was associated with a seven-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out.” (U.S. Dept of Education) In Washington, where two-thirds of jobs will require some post-secondary education by 2020, a high school diploma has become critical to upward mobility.
Digging for the Cause
Tacoma Public Schools, like many school districts in Washington, has struggled for years with a chronically absent student population. In the 2016 school year, 23% of students were chronically absent. Those rates are even higher for students from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities.
To address this problem, school administrators and state officials have been digging into the reasons why some students don’t show up to school. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released data in 2016 about chronic absenteeism in Washington and listed these reasons (among others) for why students are absent:
- Chronic diseases such as asthma.
- Lack of health and dental care.
- Students who are drafted to care for younger siblings when parents can’t.
- Unmet needs from food to clothing.
- Transportation problems. Middle-class students who miss the bus might get a ride from parents; those in lower-income families often have no way to get to school.
- Students who avoid school because of problems with bullying.
- Students who are disconnected from school and not engaged with learning.
- Parents who feel absences are only a problem if they’re unexcused.
- A belief that attendance isn’t important in early grades.
For Cinthia, her difficulty stems from her mental health struggles. One of the complicating factors has been her anti-depressant medication. Although she was prescribed it to help alleviate her symptoms, one of its side effects has been drowsiness. The fogginess she feels on the medication makes it difficult to pay attention in class. This solution, then, has become another reason why Cinthia is struggling at school. Her story is not uncommon. Whether it’s depression, trauma, transportation issues, or family needs, students like Cinthia miss school every day for their own complicated reasons.
Finding a Way Forward
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has emphasized the importance of identifying and using early warning indicators to make sure every student makes it to graduation. The most important of those measures are chronic absenteeism, 9th grade course failure, and discipline rates. In 2015, Tacoma launched an Early Warning System in their high schools based on these indicators. Focused on the 9th grade, it draws on extensive research from the University of Chicago that students are four times more likely to graduate if they’re on track (meaning they have enough credits to move to 10th grade and has not failed more than one course) by the end of their first year in high school. This indicator is so powerful that it matters regardless of a student’s race, level of poverty, or test scores.
According to the The News Tribune’s article on the system in 2016:
“Principals get a weekly report on student attendance that ranks students from best to worst attendance. They develop what is known as a “hot list” of students who are missing too much school, and teacher teams review the data and decide how to reach out to each student.”
The goal of their Early Warning System goes beyond marking attendance. It creates a system of support that includes social-emotional learning, academic planning, and community resources. Often a student’s problem is non-academic, which means schools are stepping in to support families before a student is too far behind.
The system “uses data tracking and analysis to identify students whose attendance falls off and employs teachers to act as positive mentors.” (Tacoma Public Schools)
The Early Warning System is one of the most recent tools Tacoma has employed to support its students and address its student needs, but it’s not the only one. Over the seven years from 2010 to 2017, Tacoma Public Schools improved its graduation rate over 30 points to 86.1%. The administration’s focus on chronic absenteeism is the next step in their plan to improve the number of Tacoma students reaching graduation.
Cinthia has hopes of becoming one of those graduating students, but she has a long way to go. Her absenteeism has impacted her studies and she does not have the number of credits she needs for a diploma. Although the Early Warning System in Tacoma will be a useful intervention for younger students, Cinthia, and students like her, must find a different path to graduation, despite what her early indicators may have predicted.