Vital Sign - Chronic Absence Rooted in Myths

posted Dec 27, 2012, 4:35 PM by Makenzy Williams   [ updated Dec 27, 2012, 4:36 PM by Julio Zaldivar ]
A quarter of Del Norte kindergarten, first and sixth grade students are chronically absent from school, putting them at risk of falling behind in school and dropping out. 
Chronic absence is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days – 18 absences in the 180-day school year. 
“It doesn't matter why they were gone. If you miss one in every 10 school days and it happens in the kindergarten and first grade, the likelihood of reading by the end of third grade is pretty low, especially for low income kids who often depend upon school for learning to read,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. 
Chang said excused and unexcused absences cause youngsters to miss the foundation for reading. 
“As as you get older, by the sixth grade, chronic absence starts to predict dropping out,” she said. 
Chang worked with Del Norte County Unified School District last year and found approximately 500 students at risk academically due to absenteeism. Part of her approach to changing the culture is to dispel myths that contribute to chronic absence. 

Myth: Attendance in kindergarten doesn’t really matter. 

Reality: “Kindergarten has changed since parents were in school,” Chang said. “There are more academics taught than there were before. Parents may not know that, and they may not know that missing more than one out of every 10 school days can be a problem.” 
“Schools are teaching curriculum in kindergarten that used to be taught in first or second grade,” said Patricia Vernelson, executive director of First 5 Del Norte. “Children now hit the bricks running.” 
Mandatory school begins in the first grade in California, fueling a misperception that kindergarten is preschool and not that important, Vernelson said. 
“Parents often think it’s okay to take kids out for vacation or keep them home if they just don’t want to go,” she said. “The truth is: kindergarten is a really important year. Young children who don’t attend on a regular basis fall behind their peers from the beginning and most likely won’t catch up.” 

Myth: Missing school isn't a big problem until middle or high school. 

Reality: According to a 1990-2000 study of sixth-graders in Baltimore, 41.6 percent of the chronically absent 6th grade students failed to graduate from high school and 56.3 percent of the severely chronically absent dropped out. In contrast, a quarter of those with better than 90 percent attendance failed to graduate. 
An analysis by National Center for Children in Poverty showed chronic absence by poor children in kindergarten predicted lower 5th grade achievement by almost 15 percent in reading and 7 percent in math when compared to those who missed zero to 3.3 percent of school days. 
“If you aren't reading well by the end of the third grade, you can’t read to learn in the 4th grade and you are constantly falling farther behind in everything,” Chang said. 
The California Endowment funds Chang’s work as part of its 10-year initiative, Building Healthy Communities. Del Norte and its Adjacent Tribal Lands is one of fourteen communities across the state where residents are taking action to make where they live healthier. Good health doesn't begin in a doctor’s office; health happens in neighborhoods, schools and with prevention. Together we are creating a community where children are healthy, safe and ready to learn by working to decrease childhood obesity and youth violence, and increase school attendance and access to quality health care. 
For more information, please contact Amber Talburt.