CMS searching for answers on chronic absences

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is looking for solutions to keep kids from missing school after several years without improvement, Superintendent Ann Clark said Friday.

“We clearly have an opportunity to improve the number of unexcused absences in the district,” Clark told a group gathered at the United Way of Central Carolinas. “We’ve got some fires to put out.”

She said absences are “trending up and not down,” despite progress on other metrics such as the graduation rate.

At elementary schools with a high percentage of low-income students, the percent of children deemed “chronically absent” rose from 8.8 percent in 2011-12 to 11.1 percent last school year, according to data presented to the school board this week.

At low-income middle schools, the percent went from 16.4 percent to 18.8 percent.

Chronically absent means missing more than 10 percent of school days, or about 18 per year.

Clark has repeatedly said that the district’s No. 1 priority is literacy. The problem of absences is relevant, she said, because if young children are missing days of school, they are missing crucial instruction in reading.

“The kids who are not in school are the ones who are going to fall farther behind,” Clark said.

How to solve?

Clark said the district has yet to land on an effective solution to the problem, particularly at the elementary school level. She said that children that age tend to want to be in school, but the adults caring for them don’t give them that choice.

“We have not been successful as a district completely in cracking the code on how to support those families,” she said.

This year, 18 schools are involved in a “ truancy court” partnership with the juvenile justice system. Judges and caseworkers meet with parents and students who are chronically absent. Clark said she hopes to expand the program to more schools.

CMS is also focusing on reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions, days that count as unexcused absences.

The Friday event at United Way was part of the organization’s efforts to improve the CMS graduation rate. The group also brought in Sue Fothergill, the executive director of educationRISING LLC in Baltimore and an expert on chronic absenteeism.

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