County attendance campaign: strive for less than 5 absences

As more education officials dive deep into their own county, district or school attendance data, even those with high rates of daily attendance are discovering that too many children are slipping through the cracks.

In Kent County, Michigan, 12.1 percent of children, or 13,301 students, from kindergarten to 12th grade were chronically absent in the 2016-17 school year.

That’s why a new countywide attendance awareness campaign kicked off the new school year–the Strive for Less Than 5 initiative–through which schools and community partners are reaching out to help students and their parents understand the importance of showing up each and every day.

The goal is to help children across all 20 districts in the county miss fewer than five days of school this year so that fewer students fall behind academically.

“Our school districts have high average daily attendance rates, in the 90s, but focusing on that rate you can miss all the students that are at risk of failure due to chronic absenteeism,” Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District, told local reporters.

Chronic absenteeism is defined by all Kent County districts as missing 10 percent or more of school days, which translates into 18 days–or as few as 2 days per month.

Research has shown that among young learners, those who are chronically absent are less likely to read at grade-level in third grade, which puts them at a disadvantage as they move onto more difficult subject matter in later grades.

If they move on, that is. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, Michigan students who are at least a year behind grade level in reading skills will have to repeat third grade.

Officials at a handful of districts with high daily attendance rates pointed out their own struggles addressing the needs of children who are chronically absent.

In Godwin Heights Public Schools, for example, the attendance rate is 93 percent, but had 1,609 chronically absent students in 2016-17.

District superintendent Bill Fetterhoff said the problem was concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods, and that “families and schools have to work together as a team to make sure students are in school from bell to bell.”

Kentwood Public Schools had a 94.8 percent attendance rate in 2016-17 despite also having 1,384 chronically absent students

And Godfrey Lee Public Schools had a 93 percent attendance rate that same year, but 433 of its approximately 2,100 students were chronically absent.

Kevin Polston, district superintendent, said that few parents realized their child’s education could be so negatively impacted by missing just two days of school each month.

Districts in Kent County were provided tool kits to help implement, promote and communicate the Strive for Less Than 5 campaign to students and families that emphasize the fact that missing more than five days of kindergarten makes learning to read harder; students who miss more than 10 percent of the school year are more likely to drop out; and absences affect classmates, whose learning is stalled when teachers have to help students catch up.