Together, we can reduce student absenteeism

Gwen Forney has a point. To effectively tackle lagging academic performance and high drop out rates in schools, parents, churches, community groups – all of us – must get involved.

The retired Mecklenburg County social worker has picked an excellent place to start making an impact – reducing student absences from school. Experts tag excessive absences as a major factor in poor performance. It is also a tell-tale sign of a potential dropout. Among high school dropouts polled nationally in 2006, more than 60 percent said they had long periods of school absences before dropping out.

Don't fixate on Ms. Forney's idea of holding an alarm clock drive to cut absenteeism and dropouts. Even she acknowledges that alone can't do the job. But just think of what could be done if this community launched an all-out effort to address this problem, using every available tool available – including supplying alarm clocks to provide that extra help to a kid or family that might need it.

Those other tools, though, are crucial. Data show a variety of problems associated with school absenteeism. Often children have health problems and unmet health needs. Medical interventions are often necessary. Some students don't go to bed early enough to get enough sleep. Some older children work at night to help support the family; some participate in sports and other extracurricular activities that take too much after-school time. Some children are allowed to stay up too late watching television.

To have real impact on absenteeism, parents, educators and others must commit to tackling all these problems aggressively. In 1979-80, a cooperative effort by the schools, the Housing Authority and other agencies sharply reduced absenteeism among students from one Charlotte housing project. Absentees were tracked down daily. Groups were formed for parent support and counseling. Absenteeism dropped from 26 percent that fall to 7 percent for the final two months of the school year. The program died when federal money for two truancy workers ran out.

As a social worker, Ms. Forney saw the obstacles that sometimes stymie families in helping kids stay in school and learn. She's no doubt seen times when parents themselves are the obstacles.

That's why tackling absenteeism requires a variety of strategies and communitywide involvement to work. But it can work. For this school year, Ms. Forney has sent out a welcome rallying cry. Start with supplying an alarm clock, if you like. But don't stop there.