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When It Comes To Chronically Absent Students, Ohio Schools Have Much To Learn

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Flickr Creative Commons

According to state report cards, Columbus ranks at the top of large school districts for chronic absenteeism, with a rate of 38.1 percent. And education advocates say that can have a rippling effects for students.

Chronic absenteeism happens when a student misses 10 percent or more of the school year.

Data released by the Office for Civil Rights, in the U.S. Department of Education, showed that in the 2013-2014 school year at least 6.8 million students were chronically absent across the country. In Ohio, nearly 16 percent of students are chronically absent.

But those students aren't evenly spread.

"Chronic absence, higher levels, follow the lines and contours of poverty in this country," says Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national and state-level initiative aimed at addressing chronic absence.

Chang says that large urban districts or rural areas, with high levels of poverty, had the highest rates of chronically absent kids. And there are four "buckets" of reasons why kids miss school.

Suspension policies, for one.

"Sometimes we actually are pushing kids out of school, because we include suspensions as a reason for absence," Chang says. "And when kids are being suspended for not very good reasons, sometimes they won't come back the day that they should be there."

In other cases, the problem is engagement in school subjects - and not just by the students.

"Sometimes the problem is kids and families don't see the relevance of the curriculum," she says. "They're not seeing the engagement and they're not being attracted and brought into our schools."

Parents and students still believe a number of myths about missing school, Chang says.

Just missing two days a month, she says, can throw students off-track. And attending early years of school, like kindergarten and first grade, actually matters as much as attending middle or high school.

"They think that absences just matter if they're unexcused, if you're missing without permission, but if you're excused and you've got a lot of health issues then it's OK," Chang says.

That's not true, though. Being out of the classroom for any reason can add up in terms of falling behind in reading, passing classes or even graduating.

Chang says that schools should use chronic absence as an early warning to identify what students need support - and encourage them to come back in.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.