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Rhode Island Partnership Takes On Issue of Chronic Absences

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Guest post by Michele Molnar. Cross-posted from K-12 Parents and the Public.

When parents and a community come together to tackle a multifaceted public school problem, it can translate into solutions that never would have surfaced without the external input.

Such is the case in Providence, R.I., where chronic absenteeism—defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year—is being tackled by a public-private voluntary Attendance Work Group. The team members have their task cut out for them: In 2011, 32 percent of Providence's public school children missed 10 percent or more of the school year.

Among the early approaches and solutions being explored by the work group:

  • A "walking school bus," with volunteers accompanying elementary school children on their walk to school and picking up more children at "bus stops;"

  • Latino Voices, a group of latino community leaders that seek to improve educational outcomes for Providence's children, is taking the issue to the faith-based community, inviting them to become spokespeople for the cause; and,

  • Conducting focus groups to learn from families where children have strong attendance records.

Rebecca Boxx, director of Providence's Children and Youth Cabinet and principal associate for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, says the effort is taking off without any special funding from grants. In 2012, the cabinet formed the work group, bringing together leaders from various sectors to create action plans.

Boxx advised any other city considering similar action to begin by demystifying the data.

"For us, the big shift came in the community when we stopped ... how we typically talk about attendance—which is how many kids are in school at any given time—and we talked about the idea of chronic absences," she said in a phone interview.

"Using terms like truancy, or excused vs. unexcused absences, or average daily attendance," did not resonate, Boxx said. Rather, the group started a conversation about why kids are not attending school—for whatever reason. "We're not going to put blame or a value judgment on that," she said. As a result, interest in collaborating on the issue took off.

Understanding that missing 10 percent of a school year translates into missing a month of school became a galvanizing statistic.

"When we started looking at our data that way, it was really alarming to everybody. We can have the highest-qualified teachers, the best curriculum, the most wonderful experiential learning program. But if our kids are not in their seats, it's all in vain. That became a place for folks to rally around," she said.

Delving into the particulars of why absences occur on a case-by-case basis may bring surprising results. For instance, the "walking school bus" became a solution when one neighborhood school discovered that its highest levels of absenteeism came from the students who lived closest to school, and were expected to walk.

As a mother herself, Boxx said the work has made her more aware of her children's elementary school absences, which otherwise she would have only tracked on quarterly report cards.

Boxx has written "Schools Really Can't 'Do It Alone,'" an Annenberg Institute for School Reform report on Providence's first-year collaborative efforts to address chronic absences.

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