1 out of 4 students in Iowa show chronic absenteeism in school

One out of every four Iowa students was consistently absent from school throughout the 2021-22 academic year, as per a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Authorities are optimistic that adopting a graduated strategy towards the issue will foster school-wide attendance and eliminate any hindrances to attendance. They also anticipate that increased investments in Iowa schools will help counter the upward trend.

Shirley Horstman, the Executive Director of Student Services at Dubuque Community School District, mentioned that their district employs a three-tiered strategy to enhance overall attendance in schools.

The initial tier targets all students and advocates for schools to establish a well-defined school timetable, acknowledge good attendance, and underscore the advantages of attending classes regularly.

The second tier is designated for students who were absent for 5% to 10% of the school year. Schools will engage with the parents of these students and seek ways to eliminate any impediments to regular attendance.

In situations where transportation poses a challenge, schools may support parents in organizing local carpools, educating students on public bus usage, or suggesting that older siblings accompany them to school, according to Horstman.

The third tier is designed for students who are chronically absent, missing over 10% of school days. Schools will hold a more structured discussion with parents for these students and draft an attendance agreement outlining joint efforts to enhance attendance.

According to Anne Fischer, Executive Director of Common Good Iowa, which contributed to the report, missing extensive school days puts students at an educational disadvantage. She stated, “Once you get behind, it’s hard to get caught up.”

Fischer highlighted that chronic absenteeism rates have increased nationwide since the pandemic. While Iowa’s chronic absenteeism rate of 26% surpasses the national average of 30%, both rates are higher than the pre-pandemic national average of 16%.

Fourth-grade students who maintained perfect attendance scored proficient or above proficient in reading 40% of the time, in contrast to 14% for students with ten or more absences, as per the report.

It’s not just academic performance that is affected by frequent absences, Fischer explained. A study by John Hopkins University in 2012 tracked Rhode Island students for seven years and found that chronically absent students were over twice as likely to face suspension or grade repetition.

Rising absenteeism rates also negatively impact students who are regular attendees. According to the report, students in classrooms with high absenteeism are more likely to exhibit lower test scores.

Horstman noted that when teachers have numerous chronically absent students, they must review prior material, assign makeup work, and dedicate additional time to help these students catch up.

With increased funding, Horstman emphasized that districts like hers could conduct home visits to identify attendance barriers and underscore the importance of regular attendance to students.

“If we could conduct home visits to [chronically absent] students early in the school year and welcome them, letting them know we want them present, that could significantly impact attendance,” Horstman expressed. “This is both a funding and staffing concern.”

Hedy Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, stressed that addressing chronic absenteeism involves tackling its root causes.

“When children are frequently absent from school, it typically indicates an underlying issue that needs attention. We need to pinpoint the reasons behind the absences and find solutions without placing blame on the children or families,” Chang stated.

The report indicated that students facing instabilities at home, such as divorce, domestic violence, or substance abuse, are more prone to chronic absenteeism. These students are also likelier to repeat grades and show indifference toward academic success.

Chang commended the Iowa Department of Education for making school absence data accessible to all Iowa districts, aiding in the monitoring of student attendance figures statewide.

Heather Doe, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education, noted that the state agency offers grants to schools to help them address chronic absenteeism.

Fischer stressed the necessity for increased investments in Iowa schools to combat the rising trend of chronic absenteeism.

“At a time when costs are increasing rapidly and student needs are on the rise, we are not prioritizing our schools as we did in the past. It’s not surprising that we are starting to see signs of deterioration,” Fischer expressed.

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