More than 76 million students across the nation returned to school this week following the holidays, and 8 million of them who qualify as chronically absent have already missed at least eight days of school this school year. That translates to more than 50 hours of lost instructional time each student likely won’t recover.
The U.S. Department of Education identifies a student as chronically absent for missing at least two days per month. That might not sound like much, but the effects can compound as incomplete assignments pile up, leading to lost academic progress and poor performance on standardized tests.
Nationwide, the problem seems to defy any identifiable geographical trends. According to a 2016 report by the Education Department, chronically absent students comprised just under 13 percent of the population in the sprawling urban Los Angeles Unified School District and came in at less than 5 percent across wide swaths of the Midwest and parts of New England.
While the Chicago Public Schools system is in the heart of the Midwest, 24 percent of its students struggle with chronic attendance. Much of the Pacific Northwest reported rates exceeding 30 percent, and in the Detroit Public Schools, a whopping 50 percent of students were chronically absent.
Erika Beal, who works for Rockpointe Community Church and serves as a liaison to the public schools in Detroit’s Osborn community, said schools cannot address the primary causes of chronic absence. “The basic, real big issue is clothing, uniforms, and lack thereof,” she said.
Beal described how some of the students she sees at Osborn High School might start the year with one shirt and one pair of pants, but by October they are out of school because they’ve worn them out already. She keeps a stockpile of uniforms and personal hygiene items in her office at the school that her church and other ministry partners in the area have donated, but she worries about the kids who don’t make it there.
In addition to lack of clothing, high school students often get tasked with watching younger siblings when they’re sick. “If it’s a single mom, she’s got to keep the lights on so she can’t stay home,” Beal said. “So you have to sacrifice your education.”
Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has implemented several districtwide initiatives in an attempt to address the issue, including spending $9 million last year to place attendance agents at more than 100 schools and adding a small fleet of vans to pick up students who struggle with transportation.
But so far those efforts have fallen short. A recently published study by Detroit’s Wayne State University College of Education found the chronic absenteeism rate hit an alarming 62 percent among Detroit Public Schools students in the 2017-2018 school year. The study cites poverty, crime, average monthly temperature, and even high rates of asthma as contributing factors. It concluded that the problem can only be tackled in the broader context of entire communities.
“While school-based efforts to reduce absenteeism are critical, they are likely insufficient to address the enormous challenges students face in getting to school in Detroit,” the report’s co-author, Sarah Lenhoff, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State, told Bridge Magazine.
Beal agreed, calling for Christians to step up.
“I think that maybe what’s needed is for a few organizations—like the churches, nonprofits, and other faith-based partners—to band together and say, ‘We’re going to attack this,’” she said. “We’re going to assist the district because the district is not going to be able to do it on their own.”
Editor’s note: Laura Edghill is also an employee of Rockpointe Community Church, where Erika Beal works.