St. Charles High School senior Alexandra Risinger missed 28.5 days of school last school year. She was one of the 12.4 percent—or 3,516 Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) chronically absent students who missed 10 percent, or 18 or more days during the 2017-18 school year.
Risinger’s mother passed away in the beginning of her junior year causing her to miss a lot of school. She intentionally avoided school for a period of time, saying, “It took me a while to be ready to go back.” Later in the school year Risinger broke her foot while playing lacrosse, and her already-high absentee rate climbed. Most of her absences were excused, but Risinger said her grades suffered.
She credits her father, caring teachers and school programs for not only supporting her through tough times, but for also helping her to succeed academically.
“Chronic absenteeism occurs for many reasons and it is a national problem,” Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said. National research shows effective school interventions result in improvements to student attendance. CCPS, said Hill, is working to curb absenteeism and its effects through student supports and interventions. Missing school for any reason exposes students to academic setbacks, Hill said. When a child misses multiple days it’s usually a sign that something serious may be happening with a student and his or her family, she said.
Risinger benefited from several interventions in place at St. Charles, including using the school’s daily activity period to receive instruction and complete assignments. “My math teacher especially went the extra mile to help me keep up,” she said. She also regularly stayed after school to make up work. Teachers adjusted her deadlines, and eventually she was able to bring her grades up, including in her Advanced Placement psychology and World History classes.
“When students are chronically absent, they risk falling behind or dropping out,” Deputy Superintendent Amy Hollstein said. CCPS is looking first to reduce the number of student absences while putting in place supports for those who face illnesses or personal issues that keep them from attending school. Supports like a home and hospital program, robots that allow an ill student to virtually attend class, a student graduate profile for all seniors, credit recovery, grade restoration, a Virtual Academy, make-up time during lunch and activity periods and Saturday school, are beginning to show an impact and allowing students to advance or graduate because they are allowed to complete their work, Hollstein said.
“Most of our students have good attendance,” Hollstein said. CCPS student attendance rates exceed state averages. In 2017-18, high school students’ attendance rate was 93.9 and middle and elementary school attendance averages were greater than 95 percent. The 12.4 percent of CCPS students missing 18 or more days of school, or about two days a month, is slightly below the national chronic absentee average of 13 percent. The Maryland State Department of Education defines chronically absent students as those who are absent for any reason, including illness, suspension or the need to care for a family member—regardless of whether absences are excused or unexcused.
“If kids need something, we make it work,” said Leslie Schroeck, a resource teacher at La Plata High School. Before offering interventions, Schroeck said, school staff works to pinpoint students missing multiple days and they work with the students and their parents to encourage students to attend every day unless they are ill.
“When we talk about instruction, every minute counts. Kids can’t learn if they are chronically absent, so it is important that we first understand why a student is chronically absent, and work to get them back in school and up to speed,” said Chrystal Benson, CCPS student engagement officer. Instructional interventions are only one part of the effort that includes a whole family approach, Benson said. Teachers, school administrators, psychologists and pupil personnel workers (PPWs) also play a critical role in identifying and supporting students’ educational and noneducational needs.
Attendance is not a graduation requirement in Maryland, but meeting state standards and successfully completing and passing classes is, Hollstein said. “We work to reduce chronic absenteeism not by excluding a child more, but by finding ways to get them back in school and to make up their work. How a child misses the days is really not the issue—it is all detrimental,” Hollstein said. She said she hopes legislators will give serious consideration to increased funding for mental health therapists and school counselors. “We need to help students who are facing serious life issues that prevent them from coming to school,” she said.
Hollstein stresses that the opportunities afforded to students are not a free pass. “We monitor their work and ensure they are mastering the content. Students must pass assessments on the make-up work in order to pass a class,” Hollstein said. Additionally, CCPS procedures require staff to investigate irregular attendance and for schools to notify parents when a child has missed five, 10 and 15 days. More than 15 days of absence leads to parent conferences, referral to outside agencies and attendance reviews. CCPS refers severe absentee cases to the Charles County State’s Attorney’s Office.
With the addition of interventions and alternative programs, the school system has contracted with an outside company to audit the school system’s high school graduation verification process and the educational value of the interventions. The audit will assess CCPS procedures to record, verify and report student grades and attendance; assess awareness and understanding of grading and attendance related to policies and procedures; evaluate compliance with CCPS grading and attendance procedures and law/regulations at the individual school level; and review grade changes for accuracy and appropriateness. The auditor will also evaluate reporting controls and procedures for the new student information system.
Schroeck said chronic absenteeism can lead to a student’s failure to graduate, and she is committed to getting students back in school and helping them succeed. “If we fail a child in ninth grade for missing school, how does that help the child? We have programs in place to help them… when they are ready to work, they need to have a fighting chance. We need to give them that chance,” Schroeck said.