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Why do students miss school? Results from a statewide survey on chronic absenteeism

The importance of school attendance is largely well-known — all states have compulsory attendance laws dictating the ages between which children must attend school. However, the issue of student chronic absence, defined in North Carolina by the State Board of Education as a student who misses 10 percent of the school days or more, has only recently commanded national attention.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, research has shown that chronically absent students are less likely to be reading proficiently in third grade and less likely to graduate from high school, grabbing the attention of policymakers and educators. National organizations such as Attendance Works and North Carolina-based organizations like the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation have drawn attention to the problem of chronic absenteeism, leading the State Board of Education to adopt a formal definition this past February. 

As North Carolina thinks about how to address chronic absenteeism, we wanted to find out how much North Carolinians really know about it and why they think students in their communities miss school. So, we asked.

From May to July 2018, we ran a Reach NC Voices survey online about student chronic absenteeism. The survey had a total of 1,563 respondents from 89 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Survey respondents were 79 percent white, 9 percent African American, 2 percent Hispanic, 2 percent multiple races, 1 percent American Indian or Alaskan native, and 7 percent preferred not to answer. Survey respondents were majority female and highly educated: 74 percent were female and 86 percent had a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Additionally, just under 50 percent of respondents were teachers or school administrators.

The overwhelming majority of respondents (83 percent) said they had heard of the term “chronic absenteeism” or “chronic absence,” with just 16 percent saying they had not and 3 percent saying they were unsure. However, only one-third of respondents correctly identified the number of young students (Kindergarten through third grade) who were chronically absent in North Carolina, which is about one in eight. 

North Carolinians in our survey agreed with the research: 90 percent said missing 15 or more school days impacts students’ performance. Interestingly, 70 percent said chronic absenteeism is an issue in their community with only 12 percent saying it is not an issue (18 percent said they were unsure).

Why chronic absenteeism is a problem — in other words, why students miss so much school — is a harder question to answer. While there are some common reasons why students miss school, such as an illness or bullying, the reasons can vary widely across grade levels and communities. A Brookings Institute report on chronic absenteeism notes that absences in Kindergarten and younger grades are strongly related to family factors, such as a parent’s work schedule or substance abuse, whereas absences in middle and high schools are more related to bullying and disengagement in school.

We asked, “What are reasons why children miss school in your community? Check all that apply.” Over half of respondents chose illness and mental or emotional health issues.

Of the 140 comments we received on this question, 40 percent said students missed school because of a lack of parental support or expectations of attendance, saying things like, “Parents no longer hold education as top priority,” and, “Lack of parental support or valuing of education are big problems.” 

One respondent said, “In our school, vacations and minor illnesses account for a lot of our absenteeism. Coming to school every day is not a priority for some families, and many of these are our working, middle class families. Some will take week long vacations right after extended vacations in our school calendar.”

Other respondents brought up issues of poverty, transportation, mental health, and students not enjoying school. One person mentioned students who need to work to support their family. 

Because chronic absence can look different in different places, solutions may look different as well. We asked North Carolinians, “What are some ways your community can reduce chronic absences?”

Respondents answered with a number of different solutions, including making school more fun, holding parents more accountable, better parent-teacher communication, in-home visits, providing medical and mental health care, later school start times, and transportation alternatives for students who miss the bus. About 20 percent of the 239 comments concerned holding parents more accountable and another 20 percent centered on improving communication and better engaging parents and the community. Some notable responses include:

“Outside of bona fide illnesses, the most common reason kids give me for absence is that they missed the bus. In some cases, the family has no vehicle or there is only one car and somebody had already left for work in it. I also see lots of kids who had a dentist or doctor appointment but missed the whole day of school. We need to look into transportation alternatives for these situations and encourage parents to bring their children to school even if it’s only for half a day.”

“Make school a place where children want to be. Put recess back!! Offer more breaks and incorporate activities for all types of learning instead of sitting at desks. Allow children to move. Bring back the arts, dance, music etc.”

“Be trauma-informed and resiliency focused. Work to understand what underlies the absences (may be multi-generational). Build on strengths. Identify students’ sparks to engage students in learning. Everyone student needs at least one adult at school who genuinely cares about them.”

“Begin retaining students more! If a parent thinks that a child can move through school year after year, performing below grade level, and missing far too many days of school, that’s exactly what is going to happen.”

“We need more social workers and counselors to provide a better support system. Teachers don’t have the time to devote to making sure kids are in school.”

To see more comments, view the full survey report here.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.