When I started this school year, I couldn't help but notice the absence of some familiar faces. I am teaching 7th grade English and, as the first few weeks of school went by, I began to see that some of my students were already missing school. This troubled me especially because these were the same kids I taught last year in 6th grade. I started to wonder about student attendance and its consistent problem in our schools, despite the laws intended to alleviate it.
I have seen many chronic absences during my teaching career. One of my students especially represents what happens to children when they miss too many days of instruction. As a 6th grader, Jamell lacked the remedial skills necessary to pass and needed extra support. During the year, he and I worked hand-in-hand on improving his reading fluency and comprehension. We met before school, after school, and sometimes during lunch. His tenacity for learning and his dedication to reading was inspiring. Still, I couldn't help but feel heartbroken each day I did not see him in my class. Every time he returned to school after a period of missed days, I felt like we were starting from zero. We couldn't seem to make headway on learning the curriculum because the progress we made was quickly lost when he missed school. I realized that his problem wasn't necessarily his reading level, but the fact that he couldn't to make it to class.
Absenteeism continues to be a serious problem across our nation and it is important that we recognize this and make a consistent effort to get our students through our classrooms' doors every day. Here are a few ways that I counteracted chronic missed days of school in my classroom.
Communicate and Identify the Problem:
I constantly engage in one-on-one conversations with my students to identify the root cause of missing school. I need to find out as much information as I can. Sometimes the solution to the problem is a simple one and can be found just by having a conversation. In other cases, administrative staff can come up with solutions, such as coordinating transportation or carpools for students who do not have a steady way to get to school or arrive late to class due to transportation issues.
I have had numerous conversations with parents who were unaware that their child missed class. These communications played a huge role in keeping students safe and out of trouble. In the process, I had to have some tough conversations with parents about their child's attendance and their reasons for missing class. In each of these situations, the results were an outcome that was in the best interest of my student - and their child. I remember speaking with a parent who would not drive her child to school when she was feeling ill. This led her daughter to miss multiple days of English class. The conversation was hard, but resulted in the parent's understanding that her illness was not a valid excuse for her daughter's chronic absences. From that point on, her daughter consistently attended school.
Encourage and Engage:
I make sure that my classroom always has an open door and is a place where students can learn and be safe. I strive to instill a sense of community and respect, so that students want to come to my class and enjoy instruction. I make myself available to students, so that they come to me when problems arise. Most importantly, I want to create an environment where students can speak to me about the issues that are negatively affecting their education, such as why they are missing school.
Provide Extracurricular Activities and Electives:
My students love playing sports, joining clubs, and attending school activities. I was surprised at the high attendance at our scheduled Friday dance. It's important for me to communicate to students about all of other activities our school offers and to encourage them to interact with their peers in positive ways, in hopes that their willingness to attend school increases.
Alyssa Nucaro is is a 6th grade English teacher at Lowrance School in Memphis and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.