Why is nearly a fifth of Utah schoolchildren regularly absent?

Nearly one-fifth of Utah public school students are chronically absent, a rate that has nearly doubled in the past decade.

“There is currently a 19% chronic absentee rate, reflecting 122,626 students in 2021,” Patty Norman, assistant state superintendent for student services, recently told state lawmakers.

Utah schools “feel powerless about student attendance,” she said.

Brett Peterson, director of the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services, said a legislative working group of educators, health officials, nonprofit and private partners that examined chronic absenteeism quickly found that the issue is deeply complex.

“There’s no one-time reason when we have kids who are chronically absent or truant,” Peterson said.

However, the trend is worrying because students who are chronically absent from school may fall behind and are at greater risk of dropping out. They may be more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system and engage in risky behaviors that may contribute to negative health outcomes in adulthood.

“We know that students who attend schools and are taught by their highly qualified teachers will keep them there and then keep them out of trouble within those systems,” Norman said.

school is absent

Some schools and counties have reported that the decline in regular attendance has contributed to some schools and counties reporting that 70% of their students have poor grades, she said.

“If kids don’t get their grades if they can’t pass these courses, then that contributes to our dropout rate,” Norman told members of the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee.

Amy Steele-Smith, a prevention specialist with the Utah State Board of Education, said it’s likely that COVID-19 affected current attendance data, but more work is needed to better understand causality.

“We know that the percentage of chronic absenteeism increased from 11% in 2017 to 19% in 2020. We also know that our children are currently the most absent in kindergarten at 21%,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons the Utah State Board of Education is asking the state legislature for more funding, approximately $53.6 million, to add more full-time kindergarten classes.

Kindergarten is not compulsory in Utah, but there seems to be a growing demand for full-time options that benefit children educationally, socially, and nutritionally, while also offering more consistency to working parents.

When the Wasatch School District introduced an all-day kindergarten schedule beginning in 2018, it also offered the option of a half-day visit.

With each passing year, more and more parents have embraced the all-day experience for their children. Only about 1% are calling for half-day kindergarten, Superintendent Paul Sweat said in a previous interview.

Why going to school is important

The state school board is asking for funding to expand the reach of the Check & Connect initiative. The funds would be used for grants to school districts and charter schools, and to convert a part-time position at the Utah State Board of Education office, which supports efforts to convert it to a full-time position.

According to the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, Check & Connect is an evidence-based intervention used with K-12 students who are showing warning signs of school withdrawal, such as poor attendance, poor grades, behavior problems, and are at risk of dropping out.

“At the core of Check & Connect is a trusting relationship between the student and a caring, trained mentor who is both committed to the student and challenging to highlight the education,” states the institute’s website.

Mentors monitor absences, tardiness, suspensions, expulsions, behavioral referrals, class failures, and accumulated credits. Based on this information, they develop individual interventions. They also communicate with the student’s parents or guardians and gain their support.

The initiative has been used extensively for young people in state care, such as

“We want to expand it to offer services to all youth who may have increased risk factors for dropping out,” Steele-Smith said.

According to the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, “Check & Connect’s proven results demonstrate a reduction in truancy, tardiness, behavioral recommendations, and dropout rates; increase in attendance, retention in school, credits obtained and school degree; and impact on literacy.”

Adult health outcomes

While the educational impact of chronic absenteeism and truancy is well known, lower educational attainment can also impact adult health.

According to a 2019 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, poor adult health outcomes are associated with poor academic performance.

Adults with less education are more likely to smoke and exercise less, which is directly linked to poor health outcomes.

“Failing to complete a high school diploma is associated with an increased risk of mortality or reduced life expectancy,” the academy’s policy statement reads.

Perfect presence

Baby boomers probably remember the school assemblies at the end of the year, when students were awarded for not missing a single day of school in a school year.

At a time when schools have encouraged students and staff to stay home when sick and Utah has enacted legislation requiring schools to accept “mental health days” as an excused absence, is a perfect attendance possible or desirable at all?

“Attendance doesn’t have to be perfect, but attendance is important,” Steele-Smith said.

“Good attendance establishes habits that last throughout life and affect many facets of our lives. In discussions with employers, the reliability of their younger employees is one of their concerns. Learning to graduate and attend school will have a positive impact on student development not only in academic areas but in other areas as well,” she said.

A good grade in kindergarten has an impact on future school performance and therefore graduation, Steele-Smith said.

“Kindergartens that are chronically absent tend to lag behind their classmates in the third grade. That’s important because in third grade we start reading to learn, not to learn to read,” she said.

If a student doesn’t perform at grade level when they exit third grade, they often fall behind in sixth grade, Steele-Smith said.

“I always say that as adults, we need to model and maintain high expectations while providing the right level of support,” she said. “It’s important for Utah to have and build a culture of attendance for our students that is supported by adults.”


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