Smart Investment: Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

Learn more about the root causes of chronic absenteeism in the Valley and how it is being addressed.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that over 6 million students - approximately 14 percent of the country's student population - missed 15 or more days of school in the 2013-14 school year. Defined as missing more than 10 percent of school days for any reason, chronic absenteeism is a multifaceted challenge that is currently being addressed in a variety of ways.

In the Valley, students have a slightly lower rate of chronic absenteeism of about 11 percent, which is similar to other regions throughout the State of Connecticut. Of the five core Valley towns of Ansonia, Derby, Seymour, Shelton and Oxford, Ansonia and Derby schools experience the highest absence rates. While chronic absenteeism is a challenge for administrators, it provides a unique opportunity to work more collaboratively with other school districts and municipalities to uncover the root causes of problems, which may go beyond a student's willingness or ability to attend class.

"Chronic absenteeism interferes with a student's ability to be successful in school and often leads to failure, retention, and dropout," says Ansonia's Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carol Merlone. "This can often lead to adverse lifelong challenges associated with finding employment or sustained employment."

Dr. Merlone explains how her team is addressing chronic absenteeism in Ansonia. "Ansonia High School is continuing to work with families that have students who are truant and chronically absent," Merlone says. "We put into practice many of the guidelines set forth by the State of Connecticut."

Much like the proverb - it takes a village to raise a child - multidisciplinary school staff and resources are working together to address this particularly vulnerable student population.

"We utilize our professional capabilities - social worker, school psychologist, guidance staff, administration and local outside agencies, when appropriate - to support families and students," says Merlone. "We follow up with students and families with our attendance officer during student support team meetings. We also take advantage of the state website to utilize tools that fit students' needs."

Signs of chronic absenteeism begin early in a child's academic career. Maintaining attendance is critical to development, especially for young children. By age five, a child's brain has already developed to 90 percent of his/her adult capacity. Regardless of his/her socioeconomic background, positive interactions at home, in the community and in structured settings, such as school, improve the ability to learn, self-express and engage with others.

Strong language and learning skills acquired by the end of kindergarten lay the foundation for reading proficiency by the end of third grade, which enable children to transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Children who do not develop these skills often have a more difficult time catching up and successfully graduating. Chronic absenteeism can further disrupt or delay learning as students mature and enter an increasingly more competitive workforce.

Just like in Ansonia, Derby Youth Services Director, John Saccu, sees similar patterns in Derby. "Truancy is a complex problem with many contributing factors." says Saccu. "One of the underlying reasons for continued absenteeism is the availability of housing here in the Valley, especially within Ansonia and Derby."

The timing of a move may have more rippling consequences for children than the move itself. Whether because of a job loss, a lease expiring, or other circumstances that may force a family to move during the school year, the transition can come with a cost to academic performance. This can be especially true for students who are English language learners or for whom English is a second language.

"Moving from residence-to-residence throughout a child's academic career significantly impacts his/her ability to learn, especially if it occurs mid-year," Saccu adds. "Where the young person may be academically at one school may not be exactly where s/he begins at a new school."

Dr. Merlone agrees. "There is a large transient population throughout the Valley. This adversely affects academic testing results such as PSAT and SAT scores," she says. "It also affects our ability to provide a consistent and quality education for students belonging to transient families because they move from town-to-town and district-to-district so frequently."

The Derby Youth Services Bureau supports schools, social workers, and guidance departments through outreach. "We visit with families in their homes," says Saccu. "We work with them to gain insights into the root causes behind their child not attending school. Everyone has the same goal - to make sure that each student has the ability to be in the classroom to receive a high quality education."

Merlone hopes that these once-truant students can ultimately realize their fullest learning potential.

"Lifelong learners develop a healthy perspective for college to career opportunities," Merlone says. "National data trends state that 60 percent of the jobs that are offered by 2020 will require post-secondary education. In the Valley, we are committed to ensuring that these opportunities for success exist for all of our students."