Baltimore Teachers Struggle To Keep Chronically Absent Students On Track

May 31, 2013

Venice Jackson, math teacher and department head at Carver Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR

Nearly a quarter of Baltimore city’s public school students are considered chronically absent. They miss more than 20 days of school every year. And that puts added pressure on teachers to bring those students up to speed without boring everyone else.

Ajene Atkins, who teaches middle school math and high school accounting classes at the National Academy Foundation, or NAF, in East Baltimore, says chronically absent students have a number of reasons for missing school; their parents are working when they’re getting ready for school, they miss bus connections, they hang out on the streets all night.

And when they do come to school they are often disruptive and he has to stop teaching to calm them down. In addition, it’s difficult to get those students caught up on what they missed, especially in his high school accounting classes. “We do a lot of group things,” he says. “It’s hard to have a discussion when you’re missing four or five students.”

Robert Balfanz, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says it means teachers often have a different group of kids in their classrooms every day, which puts them in no-win situation. “Either you have to say let me remind you what we did yesterday and then lose the kids who are there, they get restless, or if you weren’t here, I gotta move ahead, ask a friend to catch up,” Balfanz says. “And then those kids will get frustrated because they won’t be able to know what’s going on. Either way can slow down instruction.”

Ajene Atkins, teaching his students at the National Academy Foundation, or NAF, in East Baltimore. “It’s hard to have a discussion when you’re missing four or five students,” he says.
Credit courtesy of Ajene Atkins

Venice Jackson, head of the math department at Carver Vocational-Technical High, says she does not normally re-teach lessons during her regular classes that her three chronically absent students missed. “If you do that you’ll never get anything done,” Jackson said. “I will work with the child myself and allow the others to go on.” She often lets her top students help those who are behind because they were absent. “I do a lot of peer tutoring. Otherwise as a teacher, you will be burned out.”

Teachers spend a lot of time working with chronically absent students because those students will fail otherwise, she says. It’s a burden she’s willing to bear because she wants her students to be successful. Ronald Wallace, a Gilmor Elementary fifth-grade math teacher says he feels the same way and usually works with chronically absent students in separate groups. But he admits his extra efforts do not always pay off and the entire class sometimes suffers. “It throws off the daily routine and your lesson plan and also slows down the class flow, slows down students’ education and tends to form gaps in their learning,” Wallace says.

At NAF, Atkins makes absent students responsible for making up missed assignments. But he also gives them one-on-one attention during class. But as teachers work to bring chronically absent students up to speed, the rest of the class gets frustrated and restless. “It’s almost like a tennis match,” Atkins says. “You have to go back and forth between the two groups, which tires you out. You may be physically tired, which is understandable, but you don’t want to be emotionally drained because at that point, you get frustrated and may not be your best.”

All three teachers say they frequently call parents of chronically absent students; they refer them to counseling and work with them after school. But they know there is only so much they can do.

Wallace says he would like to see some kind of “formalized action” against parents whose children don’t come to school regularly; not necessarily arresting them, but doing something so they “start to understand that having their children in school every day is really important.” But Atkins says school administrators at both the state and local levels are prepared to get parents involved. “We’ve asked for it for years,” he says, “and we haven’t received the level of involvement that we need.”

Jackson says holding parents more accountable may help, but teachers, especially novices, need more training. Schools, she says, are based on middle class norms, “and many of the kids in the inner city are not even familiar with what middle class norms are.” Teachers need more training “on the effects of poverty and how poverty directly affects chronically late and chronically absent students,” she says.

But researcher Balfanz says teachers can’t solve the problem alone and argued that school officials must form relationships with community groups and recruit more volunteers and mentors to help teachers get better results in the classroom. 

Empty Desks is made possible through a grant from Open Society Institute-Baltimore: investing in solutions to Baltimore’s toughest problems.