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Confronting Absenteeism

Schools have long employed attendance officers whose primary job was to investigate students who were chronically absent.  But the magnitude of the problem was only recently revealed when the Education Department released its first national accounting ("How to keep children from skipping school," The Washington Post, Jun. 10).  Thirteen percent of K-12 students miss three or more weeks of school a year.  That comes down to more than 6.5 million students.  For black and Hispanic students, the rate is 20 percent.

What the report does not get into is the burden on teachers that absent students create.  When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teachers were required to help students make up the work they missed.  There was never a way, of course, to duplicate the instruction that occured during their absence.  Yet teachers were somehow supposed to perform miracles.  I realize that some students are absent for legitimate reasons: illness, family emergencies etc.  But so often, students cut classes for other reasons.  I have no sympathy for the latter group.

Rather than bemoan the issue, however, I'd like to instead focus on what schools can do proactively.  One of the more promising strategies is for teachers to try to form closer bonds with their students ("The Building Blocks of Learning," The New York Times, Jun. 14).  Whether these teachers are called mentors or surrogates is not important.  Just knowing that a teacher cares can make a difference in attendance.  Perhaps that's because the student feels a personal responsibility for not letting down the teacher.  I realize that's it's not possible to establish that kind of bond with every student.  But letting students know that they are missed when they are absent can go a long way in improving the appalling absentee rate.

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