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School attendance matters; A lot!

Across the country, schools are dealing with a crisis that is undermining student achievement as early as kindergarten: chronic absenteeism.

Nationally, more than 8 million students are missing so many days of school that they are academically at risk. Chronic absence — missing 10 percent or more of school days due to absence for any reason–excused, unexcused absences and suspensions, can translate into third-graders unable to master reading, sixth-graders failing subjects and ninth-graders dropping out of high school. This is especially true for students living in poverty who need school the most and too often face the greatest barriers to getting to school.

Research suggests that most families want their children to succeed and recognize that regular attendance is important. But few realize missing as little as two days a month can throw their child off track.

Marshalltown Community School District sees student attendance as one of the keys to higher degrees of student academic success, higher graduation rates and ultimately Bobcat Ready (college and career readiness) attainment. Over the past five years, an average of twenty-one percent of the district’s students have been identified as chronically absent, having missed eighteen or more days of school in a given year. This is not simply a matter of truancy: excused absences often related to illness and lack of access to needed health supports also cost valuable instructional time, as do days lost to suspension.

For many years, each of our elementary schools have visibly posted signs at their entrances telling students and parents that research has shown that for every day of school missed, it takes three days of attendance to make up for the learning loss. This has been a key initiative of the Read By Third (RB3) Committee that is facilitated by Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA).

Although many people – families, public officials, business leaders, health providers, public agencies and community organizations – understand the critical connection between school attendance and achievement, few realize how quickly absences can add up to too much lost time in the classroom. Working together with community partners; such as MICA, district and building leaders can help motivate students and families to avoid unnecessary absences as well as overcome challenging barriers to getting to school.

The start of each school year offers an important opportunity to look beyond average daily attendance and truancy numbers to monitor and address chronic absence. By determining who shows signs of chronic absence starting in the first month of school, schools and community partners can work together to help students get to class before they have missed so much instruction that they require academic remediation.

As superintendent of the Marshalltown Community School District, I have recently pledged to a call to action that continues to place a high priority on student attendance, mobilizes community partners around this topic and uses data to raise awareness, identify where additional supports are needed to improve conditions for learning, and establish shared targets for improvement, especially for grades, schools or student groups with elevated levels of poor attendance.

Together, we can make a positive difference for all students that will leverage better academic success and position all students for a more successful postsecondary and life experience.

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Dr. Theron Schutte is

superintendent of the Marshalltown Community School District.