By Rochelle Davis, HSC President + CEO
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report containing truly alarming data regarding the rising rates of chronic absenteeism—missing 10 percent or more of school days—among students in schools across the country. Chronic absenteeism has historically been blamed on truancy or a chaotic home life, but research shows that one of the primary causes of chronic absenteeism is health disparities in students. While health-related chronic absenteeism can affect students of any background, its most devastating impact is felt by students who face health disparities, poverty and other challenges in attaining school success. Research shows that these are the same students who benefit most from being in school.
The link between health and chronic absenteeism can no longer be ignored. The bottom line is this: Our students are failing academically because they don’t have access to health and wellness practices and policies in their schools, such as clean indoor air, attention from school nurses to treat chronic illness such as asthma and time for physical activity. These are the resources that every child needs to succeed. Our nation’s efforts to provide a quality education to all children are threatened by startling rates of chronic absenteeism.
The statistics are distressing: Research shows that children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to be reading at grade level by third grade; in turn, students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. We cannot let this happen. We as a nation can do better.
After 15 years of the No Child Left Behind act, we have reached a new crossroads with the latest educational bill currently being discussed in Congress: the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. This policy not only addresses the educational disparities among various student populations, but has made the effort to work with numerous organizations and stakeholders to gather and implement recommendations on how to better address chronic absenteeism and its inextricable link to health and wellness in schools. We have the opportunity to make significant changes to current education policy, but we can only accomplish this if we take on these challenges head on, together.
The research has been done, but it is up to organizations at the state, district and community level to use the data as a catalyst to make change that will ensure each and every child in the United States can be present for school day every day, and learn the skills that will set them up for a successful future. Under ESSA, states are now required to include chronic absenteeism on their state report cards. As a result, it is important to provide states and districts with guidance on how to implement effective solutions, which is why we created a toolkit to assist school districts in understanding their student health needs, sharing best practices to address the most prevalent student health conditions and on how to build partnerships with others to support students, families and communities.
With ESSA, with the focus on chronic absenteeism and with the resources and information we finally have access to, we are now poised to effect change. Our children are depending on us, and we cannot let them down.