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Getting our students to school on time

My three kids started school last week. With one in high school, one in middle school, and a wee first-grader, we have some very hectic mornings. The older ones wake up before 6 a.m. to make their buses, and the little one still needs help getting breakfast, packing his lunch … and sometimes making sure his pants aren’t on backwards. Add in parents with full time jobs, and it’s a minor miracle that those three make it to school on time every day.

And making it to school on time every day really matters. Research has found that being chronically absent from school—which means missing just two days a month—impacts young children’s short- and long-term outcomes, including reading proficiency in the early grades, risk-taking behavior, social skills, and, ultimately, high school graduation.

A report by the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) on attendance will be released next week. It will share that, during the 2015-16 academic year, more than 64,000 students in North Carolina elementary schools were chronically absent. Chronically absent students are found in every type of community—urban, suburban, and rural.

Getting the kids to school on time is a lot easier for me than for a lot of families. My kids make it school every day because the systems we have in place here in North Carolina were built and function for them. Our middle-class neighborhood is safe for them to walk through to the bus stop. The home we own is free from environmental hazards that can trigger asthma, a major reason kids miss school. When my kids do get sick, the pediatrician our health insurance pays for can see them quickly, and we can purchase the medicine they need to get better and back to school as soon as possible. If one of my kids misses his bus in the morning, my husband and I both have the flexibility in our white-collar jobs (not to mention two family cars) to run him to school.

Whether young children are attending school regularly is an important proxy indicator for overall well-being and family stress. Child or family health issues, lack of or unreliable transportation, unstable housing situations, and rigid work schedules are common reasons why young children can be chronically absent from school. These barriers are higher for children who live in low-income families.

The good news is that chronic absence is a problem we can solve through state, district, school and community policy and action. The NCECF report coming out next week focuses on the role of school districts, asking questions like:

  • How accurate is attendance data collection in schools, and are the data being used to communicate with families, change policies and improve attendance?
  • Are families hearing positive messaging and being engaged about the importance of regular attendance?
  • Are schools and districts putting specific plans in place to improve attendance?
  • Are other community agencies involved and contributing to the effort?

NCECF will hold a webinar to discuss the report’s findings on September 12 at 10 a.m. If you are an interested school, district, or community representative, register here to join us. We’ll share how school districts answer these questions and also some bright spots from around the state that offer actionable steps communities can learn from to improve regular school attendance.

Now, I have to run. The bus is coming, and my kid’s pants are still on backwards.

Mandy Ableidinger

Mandy Ableidinger is the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Deputy Director.