Empty Desks: The Effects of Chronic Absenteeism

Mar 8, 2013

Credit H is for Home / Flickr via Compfight

The first installment in a year-long series.

In Maryland, more than 85 thousand students miss a month or more of school annually, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. About 17,000 of those students live in Baltimore city.

At Sarah’s Hope homeless shelter in Baltimore, shelter officials said 10-year-old Jacora Franklin misses school a lot. Sometimes it’s because her bus doesn’t show up, sometimes she’s sick and other times she just doesn’t feel like going—partly because she gets teased for being homeless.

It’s like you don’t know what to do when people say ‘I have a home and you live in a shelter. Sometimes I ignore it and just say I know where I live, but I wish people would stay in their own business instead of trying to get in other people’s business.

Being homeless is just one of the many reasons students are chronically absent. Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools, says many students fall in that category because they lack basics things, such as adequate clothing. Or they have family responsibilities that interfere with school.

The one parent is working. It then often falls on the 12 or 13-year-old kid to make sure that grandparent, aunt, uncle is getting their diabetes shot or something like that. There’s a lot of sibling care. The 12 or 13 year old has to make sure their younger siblings get to school. And by the time they get them to school, they’re late for their school and they may not want to face that hassle.

In Maryland, students who miss 20 or more days a year are considered chronically absent. Statewide, more than 11 percent of public school students fall in that category. But the number jumps to nearly 22 percent in Baltimore City. Balfanz, co-author of the first national study on chronic absenteeism, said there are even more disturbing numbers.

In Maryland, 61 schools have 250 or more kids missing a month or more of school. It’s really hard for schools to have outreach to 250 kids.

A lot of students miss school because of illnesses, they’re victims of bullying, they’re pregnant or have a child, they don’t feel safe walking through certain areas to get to school, they’re in trouble with the law or they have to work. Balfanz acknowledged many reasons.

We have to be honest, there’s the don’t—the kids that understand if they don’t show no one’s going to notice, and it’s sorta exciting to go to the empty house and play X-Box with their friends or go to the mall.

In Baltimore city, most students take public transportation to school. According to Karen Ndour, the district’s Director of Student Support and Safety, that’s part of the problem, especially for high school students.

If you have to take three buses to get to school and it’s rainy or snowing. If you are self-determined and you’re 15 years old, it’s much less likely that you’re going to make it to school.

The buses are never guaranteed to show up on time. The bus stop from here wasn't that far, but we have to catch that bus on to the subway. Then we have to walk, maybe four to six blocks to school. It took two hours. - Parent Janae Paul

Janae Paul, whose children attend school on different sides of the city, said other transportation issues caused her children problems.

The buses are never guaranteed to show up on time. The bus stop from here wasn’t that far, but we have to catch that bus on to the subway. Then we have to walk, maybe four to six blocks to school. It took two hours.

The reasons may vary as to why students are chronically absent from school, but Balfanz said, there is a common thread here.

It’s largely driven by poverty. Poverty creates obstacles for kids to come to school every day. But also, there’s poverty in Maryland outside of Baltimore. Prince George’s County, Eastern Shore, Washington County. It’s not the same level of concentration, it’s not as visible but high levels of chronic absenteeism are still ultimately driven by the conditions of poverty.

A major consequence of all this is that Ndour said students with 20 or more absences score 25 points lower in math than their classmates and 16 points lower in reading on state standardized exams.

We realize when students are chronically absent those students are less likely to do well on standardized testing. They also tend to be retained more often and also have a lesser chance of graduating on time or at all.

At Gilmor Elementary in West Baltimore, some teachers said it is not always easy keeping chronically absent students on track. Ronald Wallace teaches fifth grade math at Gilmor and has several students who are chronically absent.

What I like to do is try to break them into different groups and that way I can reach the students who were absent in a smaller setting because doing it as a whole group, that’s just almost a recipe for disaster. Because again, there are some students who are here every day, so to slow them down for a student who was absent isn’t fair to them.

Researcher Balfanz blames parents for some of the poor attendance, especially when it comes to pre-school and kindergarten students. He said many parents do not think the early grades are important. That could explain why nearly 27 percent of pre-k students were chronically absent last year, according to a Baltimore Education Research Consortium study. Balfanz said early year absences are a worrisome trend.

Kids that are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade have considerably lower reading scores by third grade. Students who are chronically absent in sixth grade have considerably higher odds of dropping out of high school. Students chronically absent in 10th grade have significantly lower odds of enrolling in college.

A major problem in finding solutions is that Maryland is one of only six states that actually track chronic absenteeism. Balfanz described Baltimore as a leader on the issue.

Baltimore to its credit has really made major efforts to address this, but nationally, in many cities and states, it’s not even recognized that it’s an issue. Five years ago, Baltimore was one of the first cities that formed a collaboration between the mayor’s office and the school district and a bunch of nonprofits and actually built a work group to study this and understand what the problem was, what the issues were and develop a response to it.

As part of that response, the mayor’s office initiated a campaign that rewarded schools with the highest pre-K and kindergarten attendance rates. Also, Ndour said officials from 32 schools spent the summer identifying attendance barriers and developed individual plans to make their schools more welcoming to students.

We did a deep dive into how to improve the school climates in those schools and what we’ve seen is an improved attendance in those schools across the board. If the school is a place where everyone wants to be, everybody tends to get there, no matter what the barriers are.

Ndour said officials from 32 additional schools will go through the same process this summer, as part of the district’s continuing efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism.

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