Chronic absenteeism is a lot more than “playing hooky,” according to superintendents from Southwest Washington.
School heads from Southwest Washington, including those from Kelso and Woodland, joined Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler in Vancouver on Wednesday morning to discuss why so many students in Washington are missing school − and what can be done to fix it. The question has special relevance to Longview, where the rate of chronic absenteeism, for example, is well above the state and national average.
A student who misses 10 percent of their school days, with or without an excuse − about 18 days in a 180-day school year − is considered “chronically absent.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 6.8 million students across the country were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year, or about 14 percent of the student population. During that time, Washington’s chronic absenteeism rate hovered around 16 percent. Since then, it has risen to 16.7 percent, or about 193,000 of 1.1 million students statewide.
In Longview in 2016, almost 24 percent of students were chronically absent, while in Kelso it’s about 15.5 percent of students, according to the state superintendent’s office.
According to the state Superintendent’s office, students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are more likely to not read at grade level by third grade. Missing too many days of school has also been tied to increased likelihood of dropping out of school prior to high school graduation.
Herrera Beutler invited the superintendents to tell her about some of the challenges they face when it comes to getting kids to show up at school.
The congresswoman recently introduced a bill, titled the “Chronic Absenteeism Reduction Act,” which would allow schools to use federal money to create school-based mentoring programs, improve data collection about why students miss school and emphasize alternatives to school suspensions.
“I think most of us would say that attendance is not the issue, it’s a symptom of an issue,” said Battle Ground superintendent Mark Hottowe, a former Kelso school administrator. There are a variety of causes, he said, that prevent students from getting to school.
Those reasons include boredom and “disengagement,” health problems, financial problems and problems with childcare and transportation. Some children may have physical or mental health problems that prevent them from coming to school.
Other superintendents spoke of families with high school students who provide child care for their youngest siblings, while others are working to make money to help put food on the table.
Woodland School District superintendent Michael Green spoke about his concerns over potential Medicaid cuts and how it might affect many of his student’s access to health care services.
“Families who are deeply in need … (are) facing the prospect of fewer and fewer resources to be able to support them,” Green said.
“Right now, under current law, are you having success getting mental health services for these Medicaid kiddos?” Herrera Beutler asked the group of administrators.
Green said the biggest struggle for Woodland was that its student population comes from both Clark and Cowlitz counties, which both have different delivery systems for those on Medicaid. The federal health care program for low-income citizens also helps provide in-school health services for qualifying students. For, it will help pay for counselors and therapists, among other services
For the Kelso School District, Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said, navigating the choices among Medicaid providers can be difficult for parents and administrators.
“If you offer choice, sometimes the family, despite guidance, will select a provider that doesn’t provide the services they most need,” Gelbrich said.
“Having these (health) services in our schools is critical,” Hottowe from Battle Ground said. “Kids and parents won’t likely go somewhere… to access mental health services if we’re not there.”
The bottom line, Herrera Beutler said, is that school districts don’t just educate children. They often are involved in all aspects of a child’s life, which requires more services.
“We look at these contributing factors to attendance: mental illness, dysfunctioning families, substance abuse, all the factors that lead to failure for kids in schools,” Gelbrich said. “We’re trying to peel that onion back. Different than 10 years ago, 15 years ago, we do have social service providers, local medical practitioners that are far more willing to engage at the school site. You’re in the pattern of the family to catch these.”