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North Carolina struggles to count and serve chronically absent students

This morning, in classrooms all across North Carolina, teachers will survey the desks in front of them. They’ll see eager learners and class clowns, kids rubbing sleep from their eyes, and those scrambling to finish last night’s homework. The teachers will also notice a few empty chairs. And—even without checking the roster—there’s a good chance they’ll know who’s missing. 

Chronic absence can be easy to spot.

Like most states, North Carolina has struggled to solve the overt problem—kids missing too many days during the school year—and, importantly, the root causes of chronic absence. The issue is fraught with pejorative assumptions, woven with complicated social issues, and met with a hodgepodge of policy solutions that range from public service announcements to criminal charges.

The state’s compulsory attendance law requires children to attend school until age 16, and it lays out methods by which teachers and schools are to notify parents or guardians of escalating unexcused absences. After 10 or more unexcused absences, parents who don’t comply with the law could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 120 days in jail.

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education adopted a policy that, for the first time, clearly defines chronic absence. Under the board’s definition, any student whose total absences—not just unexcused absences—amount to at least 10 percent of the total number of enrollment days in a given school year will be considered chronically absent. That policy is consistent with national guidelines and with recommendations from statewide advocacy groups.

Why does this matter?

Simply put, being in school matters. Research has found chronic absence to be a leading indicator for third grade reading proficiency and high school graduation. Students who miss more days of school, whether due to excused or unexcused absences, have poorer academic outcomes. 

According to the most recent data, collected during the 2015-16 school year and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, 14.8 percent of North Carolina’s public school students were chronically absent. However, this average masks wide variations in attendance rates both between and within districts. 

For example, Johnston County Schools reported that 0.13 percent of the district’s 34,958 enrolled students were absent for 15 or more school days that academic year, which is the lowest chronic absence rate in the state. By contrast, Hertford County Schools reported 26 percent of its 3,074 students were chronically absent that school year, the highest chronic absence rate in the state. Wake County reported 13.25 percent of its students chronically absent, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg reported a rate of 9.91 percent.

But district-level data doesn’t paint a complete picture. Chronic absence often disproportionately affects students of color and those who come from low-income households. It tends to appear most frequently in schools that serve less affluent populations. While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reported a district-wide chronic absence rate of just under 10 percent, for example, the rate at some of the district’s high-poverty high schools was three times that number.

“Education research shows that chronic absenteeism is an effective and actionable measure,” the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction said in a February bulletin. “It serves as an early warning indicator for principals and other school staff to identify students who are at risk of adverse outcomes due to absences from school and intervene to reduce or eliminate absences. In addition, aggregate reports at school and district levels that measure the percentages of students chronically absent from school can help identify schools and districts that would benefit most from additional support and resources.”

Until recently, the state’s response to chronic absence seemed to focus more on resolving individual cases than on the aggregate.

In 2017, the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) published a policy brief, called AttendaNCe Counts, that offered a review of the state’s approach to tracking, analyzing, and solving chronic absenteeism.  

At the time, North Carolina did not have a state definition of chronic absence, nor did it have a state-level public awareness campaign around regular attendance. “The state-level approach,” the report said, “is more punitive than supportive.”

Furthermore, the brief noted a dearth of publicly-available reports and data about chronic absenteeism. “Schools and districts with high chronic absence rates are not identified regularly by the state,” the NCECF document noted. “There are no requirements in place that districts or schools address attendance through school improvement plans.”

The report identified a lack of interventions and strategies in place to meaningfully address the problem—even though such solutions have been identified on the national level. “While some of these strategies require additional resources, others—such as school- or district-wide messaging campaigns and creating a culture of attendance—are inexpensive, reach all children, and can prevent chronic absence before it starts,” the report said. It noted that although school districts in North Carolina have the option of providing online portals that help parents track their child’s attendance, each district has to opt-in to the online service, and even then, the lack of internet and computer access mean not every parent can see the data, even if it exists.

A nuanced understanding of the root causes of chronic absence is often elusive, even for teachers and school administrators.

A Reach NC Voices survey, conducted online by EducationNC earlier this year, illustrates the varied perceptions North Carolinians hold about chronic absenteeism (an article about the survey is forthcoming). The survey asked, “What are reasons why children miss school in your community? Check all that apply.” Response options included: illness, mental or emotional health issues, difficulties with housing or food, lack of transportation, bullying at school, poor grades, caring for another family member, and other (write-in below).

The most commonly selected reasons were illness (58 percent selected), mental or emotional health issues (57 percent selected), difficulties with housing or food (47 percent selected), and lack of transportation (43 percent selected). 

Of the 140 comments in response to the question, 43 percent blamed a lack of parental expectations or guidance. “Most of my students miss school because they miss the bus,” one commenter said. “Parents do not wake up children and make sure they get ready for class.”

Twenty percent of the comments focused on student lack of motivation and 11 percent hinged on family challenges. One respondent noted the “cycle of poverty” that plagues so many North Carolina families as a contributing factor; another said, “Many of our high school students are taking care of younger siblings or parents.”

Conversely, some responses indicated problems of affluence: “I have experienced parents checking students out early every Friday so that they can get ahead of traffic to the beach or make it to hair or nail appointments,” one person said.

A school bus driver who responded to the survey said false assumptions cloud the conversation. “People assume they can tell who will be lazy, who as parents don’t care what their children do, who wants all the handouts, and who will really try,” the driver said. “I have parents who are dropouts who have their kids at the bus stop every morning, ready to go. I have kids whose parents are highly educated and these kids are so entitled.”

Across North Carolina, the courts system and public schools have collaborated for years on truancy court programs.

“The ultimate goal of truancy court is to have youth attend school and get them re-engaged in the joy of obtaining an education,” says Carol McManus, a court counselor for District 27, which includes Cleveland, Gaston, and Lincoln counties. “Truancy court prosecutes parent and juvenile in the same court room at the same time. It assures that each party’s case is heard by the same judge and all agencies involved with the case are present at the same.”

Truancy court programs are often more like counseling sessions and are designed, supporters say, to get ahead of a situation that would prompt the school district to formally charge a parent or guardian with a misdemeanor. In Mecklenburg County, judges have been holding voluntary eight-week sessions with parents for nearly 20 years, which participants say is the longest-tenured program of its kind in America. In-school truancy courts have had mixed effects, however.

“In the past 10 years, the initiative has increased the number of cases that have been resolved through truancy mediation and not ended up in court,” McManus says. But when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools conducted an outside review of its program, the results were inconclusive; earlier this year, judges in Mecklenburg County began an intensified program for serious offenders—with jail time on the table for parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t send their kids to school.

In court hearings across the state, parents have cited everything from oppressive bullying to language barriers to homelessness to family health crises as reasons for their child’s chronic absence. These situations are often the underpinning of criticism for legal interventions for chronic absence.

Leora Moreno, a Mecklenburg County assistant public defender, told the Charlotte Observer that criminal charges for poor parents struggling to get their kids to school are “deeply troubling.”

“Because they are poor, my clients’ lives can be criminalized in every which way, so let’s criminalize another piece of their lives by bringing them into court,” Moreno told Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms for a piece about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ truancy crackdown earlier this year. “For someone with money, this would never happen.”  

Although it might be effective at capturing parents’ attention, the legal system isn’t North Carolina’s only remedy.

This year, the State Board of Education adopted its chronic absence definition. “Educators and researchers who argue for greater focus on the issue of chronic absenteeism say the first step for promoting consistent student school attendance and reducing student chronic absenteeism is collecting, analyzing, and using accurate and consistent data,” NCDPI reported shortly after the policy adoption. “Schools are then able to identify at-risk students and trends and to inform when and how to effectively and efficiently target school and community resources.”

Weeks later, the General Assembly passed a bill that encouraged school districts to adopt campaigns that promote school attendance as a vital part of the learning process.

Scholars say chronic absence is solvable—but it takes a dedicated effort. “Prevention of chronic absence is not rocket science,” wrote Duke University education professor emeritus Philip Cook, and Georgetown University think-tank editor Phyllis Jordan, in a Charlotte Observer opinion piece last year. “There are positive measures that school districts can implement at little cost that will improve children’s attendance, support families, and strengthen engagement in school.”

Cook’s research at Duke included an exercise that put first and second grade teachers in regular communication with families via a dedicated cell phone and encouraged conversations about school attendance. The experiment paid off. Student absences dropped by 10 percent and parents were twice as likely to contact the teacher as parents in other classrooms.

Academics also assert the importance of early interventions, rather than punitive measures for students and parents later in the schooling journey. “An emphasis on teenage truancy ignores the problem where it starts—in the early grades, when absences are about families struggling with transportation, health issues, unstable housing, or other obstacles to attendance,” Cook and Jordan wrote.

Perhaps the most effective approach to curbing chronic absence is also the most complex: solving the systemic problems—poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues—that tend to keep students out of the classroom.

Treating chronic absence as an isolated problem rather than the symptom of something deeper and more nuanced, educators say, will hinder efforts to boost attendance. Those solutions don’t just involve school systems. They require partnerships among a wide range of community organizations—nonprofits, government, education, health care, and more.

“We need additional research and innovation to identify strong prevention and interventions to support better attendance,” one respondent to the EdNC survey wrote. “We need to engage families to understand their barriers and co-design strategies WITH them, not just FOR them.”

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.