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Attending to chronic school absenteeism

September means back to school for the country’s 55 million students. Too many, though, will finish the month with two or three absences and, if that pattern continues, end up missing 10 percent of the school year. We hope a new campaign that calls attention to the risks of chronic absenteeism will result in new efforts to get students to school and keep them there.

Forty national organizations have teamed with schools and community groups to call attention to the problem. “We know that virtually every parent wants their child to be successful in school – but often parents and even teachers don’t realize how quickly absences can add up to academic risk,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works.

Studies show that 5 million to 7.5 million students miss nearly a month of school every year. In early grades, it means children are less likely to master reading; by middle and high school, it means students are more likely to drop out.

New York City is seen as a model of what’s possible. Its effort includes using data to identify children who are chronically absent, determining the barriers to attendance, engaging parents in solutions and rewarding results. The answer may be as simple as assuring parents that a school can deal with a child’s health issue or arranging safe transportation. Most impressive is New York’s program that matches chronically absent children with mentors who greet them at school or call home when they don’t show up to class.

Leslie A. Cornfeld, who chairs New York’s task force, told about a student who had had attendance problems but was now showing up every day. When asked why he had missed so much school, his answer was: “Nobody ever seemed to care if I was here or not before. ... When I am not in school now, they call my house right away.”

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