At Bulkeley High School in Hartford, teachers can expect that one of every four of their students will be absent every day.
These teachers are not alone. Dozens of schools statewide, in all parts of Connecticut, also have dismal attendance rates.
But is this a truancy problem?
“We don’t know,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, chief operating officer of the State Department of Education.
State law requires that a list of interventions take place when a child has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a school year.
Russell-Tucker said this law is in place to ensure that officials determine why a child is not making it to school, and fix it.
If students lack reliable transportation, the district must resolve the problem. If they aren’t showing up because they are being bullied or because of another personal issue, it is the district’s responsibility to address the issue. If the child is skipping and nothing else is working, then they can face discipline measures through the courts.
But here’s the potential problem: These interventions are only guaranteed and triggered when students reach that threshold of unexcused absences.
That may soon change.
At its next meeting, the State Board of Education will likely consider adopting a statewide policy on what counts as an excused and unexcused absence.
“It’s really a district-by-district decision” now, said Lydia Tedone, chairwoman of the Simsbury Board of Education and president of the state’s school boards association. “It’s something that’s handled locally.”
The intent, state officials said, is to ensure that districts are identifying chronic absenteeism early and taking action before too much class is missed. Child advocates have been pushing for this for year, and last year the legislature approved a bill that requires a uniform standard.
“It is impossible for SDE to accurately measure the impact of “lost” school days statewide, put in place appropriate and needed interventions, and hold districts accountable without adhering to a uniform definition statewide,” said Martha Stone, the leader of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.
A national report released Wednesday by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education found that few states and districts track the amount of school students are missing, instead requiring average daily attendance rates to be reported.
“Because [chronic absenteeism] is not measured, it is not acted upon,” write Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes, authors of the report, which was partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “A school can have an average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent.”
Many schools in Connecticut have average daily attendance rates of 90 percent or below, according to the state department’s report on the most recent school year.
In the six states that track excessive absenteeism — Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island — at least 10 percent of students miss more than a month of school.
Connecticut’s Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said the department will make some recommendations for a universal state definition of “unexcused” and “excused” absence to the state board next month.
“School attendance is a critical issue for us as we aim to enhance school success. Children who are truant are more likely to fall behind and ultimately drop out,” he said. “By establishing a standard definition … we will be able to better understand the problems in this area, and to provide interventions and support as needed.”
Things that will be considered include whether missing days for family vacations or transportation issues will be excused. Before any decisions are made, the state department plans to host a forum in Hartford the first week of June.
Nationwide, there is no standard for what attendance policies work best to prevent truancy, said Kathy Christie, with the Education Commission of the States.
“When I looked through what some states have, I said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh.'” Christie said she was shocked to find that some states allow a high school student to miss five of eight class periods during the day without being considered absent.
“Few states drill down on this,” she said. “It’s so important to do everything to make sure they are showing up for school.”