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Combating Chronic Absenteeism

It's hard to believe that six million students a year miss 15 or more days of school, which qualifies them as chronically absent, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights ("Present in the Story of Student Absenteeism," The Education Trust, Jul. 6).  The data come from the states because the federal government curiously does not track absenteeism.  More alarming is that the rate of absenteeism is even higher for students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.

When students are out of school for so many days, the likelihood of their dropping out increases dramatically.  Students just give up on ever catching up.  That's why it's so important to identify the problem before it's too late.  Counselors can help, but so can teachers. By trying to establish closer bonds with their students, teachers send the message that they care.  For many students who have never had an adult before who has shown interest in them, this reaching out can help.

But so can technology.  An app called Kinvolved lets teachers take attendance with a simple swipe of a finger and then automatically sends a text message to parents if a student is tardy or absent ("An App Helps Teachers Track Student Attendance," The New York Times, Jan. 23). Yet even the most advanced technology does not address the underlying causes of absenteeism.  Attendance officers, once known as truant officers, can be dispatched to the homes of chronically absent students in the hope of determining the reasons, and then social agencies can be called in to help.

In the final analysis, however, so much depends on factors beyond the control of even the most dedicated adults.  That's a tragedy because without a high school diploma the prospects are bleak for dropouts.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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