“It is entirely appropriate because school routines are established in September and those routines often carry throughout the school year,” he said. “Getting to school, on-time and every day, is a routine worth getting into. Our job is to make school so engaging, challenging, and enjoyable that students will want to be in school every day. We encourage parents to contact us, the earlier the better, when students are having a difficult time of getting to school. We will help.”
Policy analyst Stephanie Geller of the Rhode Island Kids Count advocacy group said research shows children who are chronically absent, which is defined as missing 18 days or 10 percent or more school days during the year, are more likely to have learning difficulties and are more prone to dropping out of school later.
“Those students who are not starting off on the right foot in September and are already missing a couple of days in the first month of school are likely to be at risk for continuing with that same pattern, and missing two or three days a month starting in September can add up to being chronically absent throughout the school year,” she said.
Rhode Island is one of just six states that track chronic absenteeism. RI Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Ken Wagner urged educators to involve their students’ families in addressing absenteeism.
“Above all else, in order to succeed in school children need to attend class regularly and they need to come to school ready to learn — well-nourished, well-rested, and up to date on their classwork and homework,” he said in an email response for this story.
“Because we recognize the importance of regular school attendance, Rhode Island is one of the few states to report publicly on rates of chronic absenteeism. We strongly encourage our school leaders to reach out to families whose children are missing too many school days, especially in the early grades. Through strong partnerships between schools, families, and providers of social services, we can all work together to keep children in school and on track for success.”
Geller said Chariho’s absenteeism rate was lower than the average for the state and many other school districts.
“It is not only one of the better ones, it is better than the state rate and better than many of the surrounding districts,” she said.
However, there are spikes in absentee numbers at certain grade levels: Kindergarten, Grade 6 and Grade 12.
“In the kindergarten year, we see a much higher rate of absenteeism than in the other early elementary years,” Geller said.
Ashaway Elementary School Principal Jeffrey Scanapieco said it was important to realize that Kindergarten students often find school a frightening experience.
“A lot of children, this is their first formal schooling,” he said. “They have not been in preschool or daycare settings, so it’s a new environment for them, and we do run a full day program here, so they are here all day. And they are five years old, and it’s a tough transition for some kids.”
Chariho Middle School Principal Gregory Zenion said Grade 6 was another difficult transition for many children because it is so different from the elementary school.
“Our 5th grade is really set up as an elementary model, and our 6th grade becomes that middle school model,” Zenion said, “so that’s where you see sometimes an increase in attendance issues.”
Zenion said administrators were making a special effort to help new middle school students adjust.
“What we have put in place for this year is we’ve moved another teacher into the sixth grade. We think that will help. And we have a special educator that will be co-teaching with one team, so we’re hoping that some of the neediest students that may have a struggle with that transition academically will have some extra support,” he said.
Zenion added that Dean of Students and Guidance Counselor Gianni Petteruti, who worked with fifth graders last year, will stay with the class as the students enter sixth grade.
“He has a pretty good handle on his students already, so we’re hoping he’ll be able to work with the families and address it head-on,” Zenion said.
Teachers take attendance every morning, and when a child has three or four unexcused absences, the school sends a note to parents. At Ashaway Elementary School, after eight unexcused absences, the school sends a formal notice and Scanpieco contacts the child’s parents.
“Last year, I called parents personally and I requested that they come in. I sat down with them, I talked with them and it wasn’t me belligerent and angry it was more ‘what’s going on? What can we do to help?’...Sometimes it is more difficult, and in those difficult cases, we get the truancy officer involved,” Scanpieco said.
There are many factors that contribute to chronic absence. Children can be anxious or afraid, they can have difficulties getting to school, or they may not even have the appropriate school clothes. Geller said chronic absence should be seen as an indicator of other possible problems at home.
“It’s pointing out problems that this individual child or family may be facing that we can identify early by looking at chronic absence data, and not just address the attendance, but also address the other problems that are behind the reason that they are not attending school regularly,” she said.