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Albuquerque Plans 'Truancy Blitz' to Curb Absenteeism in the District

The Albuquerque school district is embarking on a three-day "truancy blitz" this month to address the district's nettlesome truancy problem and engage the community in finding better approaches to curb student absences.

The blitz, which runs from Jan. 22 through Jan. 24, is called "You Must be Present to Win," and will include discussions and meetings with parents, community organizations, businesses, and the district's truancy experts.

The slogan is a play on the obvious but research-proven fact that students have to be in class to learn what's being taught. The district said that absences lead to educational failures and serve as a "warning sign for delinquent activity and social isolation."

About 8 percent of the district's elementary school students are habitually truant, with 10 or more unexcused absences a year. Those numbers increase as students get older, according to the district.

Albuquerque is not the only jurisdiction trying to curb truancy and reduce its effects on students. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris has been calling for the state to revisit its truancy laws. A comprehensive report last September from Harris' office showed that one in five California students were truant in the previous school year, with high rates in the early years and African-American elementary students more likely to miss school than all other subgroups. According to the report, African-American students had an absentee rate that was almost four times that of other students. Ninety percent of those with major attendance issues—defined as those who missed 36 or more school days—were low-income students.  

For "Absences Add Up: How School Attendance Influences Student Success," a 2014 report by Attendance Works, a national organization that focuses on reducing chronic absences, the authors conducted a state-by-state analysis of 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores. The results showed that students with higher rates of absences in the month before the tests scored lower than students with fewer or no absences.  

Students who missed three or more days of school in the month before the exams scored an average of 12 points lower than those with no absences on 4th grade reading tests. In the 8th grade math results, the difference was an average of 18 points, according to the report.

Nationally, one in five students missed three or more days before the test, according to the report. If that pattern held true for the entire school year, those students would have missed 27 days by the end of the school year—or 15 percent of the school days. Three percent of students missed more than 10 days of school in the month before the test, according to the report. 

Rates of absences for 4th graders were highest in the states of Montana and New Mexico, with 26 percent of students in Montana and 25 percent in New Mexico missing three or more days of school in the month before the exam. Among urban school districts, Albuquerque stood out, with 24 percent of its 4th graders and 23 percent of its 8th graders missing three or more days before the test. (In Detroit, the percentage was 30 and 33 respectively.)  

Reasons for the absences range from a lack of transportation to home-life issues, including parental constraints and mental illness, according to the district.

"The factors that lead to truancy are far too complex to expect the district to annihilate the problem alone," Interim Superintendent Brad Winter said in a statement announcing the program on Tuesday. "It's time to finetune our approach to dealing with this problem, which means tackling it as a community."

The blitz is part of the district's ongoing efforts to get a handle on the problem. In September, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the district had increased the number of social workers assigned to working on truancy issues. The district started an anti-truancy pilot program in 2013 at a dozen schools with high truancy rates and expanded it to 23 schools in 2014.

That program, according to the paper, had mixed results in the rollout  during the 2013 school year. Truancy was reduced in six elementary and two middle schools during the pilot's first 80 days, while one school saw no improvement, and truancy rates worsened at two middle schools and two high schools.

The new anti-truancy blitz is another attempt to address the problem. A Jan. 22 attendance summit, for example, will explore the importance of school attendance and how the schools, the community, and businesses can work together to improve attendance. On Jan. 24,  the program will wrap up with a "Truancy Town Hall" in which the district will discuss its truancy-prevention and -intervention programs and seek input from attendees.

The district will use the input to revisit how it deals with truancy and improve on its programs.

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