October 21, 2008

Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades and Improve Supports for Children and Families

The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School today issued a report on the New York City public schools which documents high rates of chronic absenteeism at the elementary level. The report also examines possible solutions for elementary schools dealing with this crisis.

While New York City has long struggled with attendance problems in the high schools and middle schools, problems at the elementary schools have been largely overlooked until now.

Last year, more than 90,000 children in grades K through 5 (more than 20 percent of enrollment) missed at least one month of school. In high poverty neighborhoods, the number was far higher, approaching one-third of primary grade students.

“In many neighborhoods, the challenges of child and family poverty are immense. Addressing these issues directly, alongside absenteeism, may not only improve school success in the long-term, but also strengthen families and improve the quality of children's lives.”

The implication for these students' long-term success is enormous, but this is only part of the story. This report also describes how chronic absenteeism at an early age can result from problems at home, and how strong partnerships between public schools, community organizations and other institutions can make a difference.

In many neighborhoods, the challenges of child and family poverty are immense. Addressing these issues directly, alongside absenteeism, may not only improve school success in the long-term, but also strengthen families and improve the quality of children's lives. The report suggests a targeted approach to addressing chronic absenteeism and family instability in 100 city schools with the goal of strengthening schools by strengthening families.

Key findings of the attendance analysis include:

Last year, in 12 of New York City's 32 school districts, well over 25 percent of primary school children were chronically absent from school, missing more than 10 percent of the school year.

In five of these districts, fully 30 percent of the primary school children, kindergarten through fifth grade, were chronically absent.

In six of these districts, between 8 and 11 percent of primary school children missed 38 or more days of school during the 2007/2008 school year.

And in 123 individual New York City primary schools at least 30 percent of the children were chronically absent.

Researchers and child protection professionals have found that chronic early absenteeism is at times a signal of much more serious problems in a family, such as domestic violence, child abuse, mental illness and criminal justice system involvement, all commonly associated with child welfare involvement.

This report also examines the role of schools in the child welfare system, including:

  • the training and reporting mechanisms that are the formal links between child protective services and the Department of Education; and

  • the huge variation that exists across the school system for outreach to parents whose children are missing school or who may be struggling with poverty, health issues and other high-risk factors.

This report provides data on school-based attendance "407" alerts, which are generated automatically to inform school leaders when a child has crossed a threshold of absenteeism, and which require action to determine the reasons for these absences. Our data show that schools are attending to the types of extended absences that trigger these alerts more quickly today than in years past. However, the data also show that the structure of the "407" system masks the full extent of chronic absenteeism, especially in the early grades. The report also offers case studies of community-based organizations and schools that have worked to engage families, to offer them support, and to identify just what their students and families need.

Finally, the report has synthesized workable ideas from school principals, attendance teachers, social workers and city officials. These recommendations offer direction for the field in addressing the intertwined problems discussed in this report. The report suggests an approach for targeting schools with the greatest need, describing a possible structure for supporting practical assessments of the problem, followed by effective working partnerships between principals and skilled community-based organizations.

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