School absenteeism should worry us all

Mary Lynne Calhoun
Mary Lynne Calhoun

Have you ever had a school-anxiety dream?

Such dreams might involve walking into a classroom and facing an exam that you didn’t know about, or perhaps you missed the exam entirely. Maybe you’re racing down the hall and can’t find the correct classroom, or your locker.

For adults, such nocturnal anxieties are easily dismissed after waking. But for too many children and teens in Charlotte, just making it to school is a major source of daily anxiety.

Children in poverty often face substantial barriers to school attendance, including unstable housing, transportation and after-school issues, and health problems due to lack of access to good medical care. These hurdles frequently lead to chronic absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of school days in a year (or about 18 days). It is a problem that should concern all of us because absenteeism is a leading indicator of school dropouts.

Consider these findings from Attendance Works:

▪ By grade three, children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are far less likely to read on grade level than their peers.

▪ With each additional year that they are chronically absent, students are more likely to drop out of high school.

▪  Students who were chronically absent in high school are less likely to return to college for the second year.

Chronic absenteeism also places a burden on already overworked teachers, who must divide their attention to help bring absent students back up to speed.

United Way began focusing on this issue as part of its core initiative to increase graduation rates for at-risk children, when data showed that 19 percent of these children were chronically absent – nearly twice the CMS average. Through a collective partnership, agencies such as A Child’s Place and Communities In Schools have increased their focus on attendance.

So before you check your child out of school, consider the bigger picture: If your child misses 2-3 days of school each month, excused or otherwise, your child will be chronically absent by spring.

And beyond your own children, consider becoming a reader, tutor or mentor to a child in need. Serving as a role model and supportive voice can go a long way in helping overcome educational barriers. If you’re not sure where to begin, call the United Way Volunteer Center at 704-371-6255.

Attendance matters, and you can make a difference!

Mary Lynne Calhoun retired as Dean of the College of Education at UNC Charlotte in 2013.