TREE resource coach Laura Thomas speaks with Milbridge Elementary student Cody Leighton in this January file photo. TREE is partnering with Washington County schools and Maine universities to provide student counseling and teacher training to help intervene in student struggles outside of school that interfere with learning.

More than 29,000 Maine students are missing enough class time to cause worry among school administrators and state education officials responsible for helping them succeed.

The Maine Department of Education last week released 2016-17 school year data for districts across the state that show that 16 percent of the nearly 192,000 students included in the data are chronically absent.

“To be honest, it’s higher than we anticipated it being,” said Janette Kirk, the DOE’s deputy director of learning systems.

Research shows that students who miss that many days lag behind their peers, run the risk of becoming disengaged in school or dropping out, and are more likely to fail classes. Even pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students who miss substantial amounts of school tend to struggle more than their peers later on, according to the Brookings Institute.

Maine considers a student absent if they miss more than half a school day. Students are chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of school days — or 18 days in a 175-day school year.

New way of measuring

The Maine Department of Education recently started tracking chronic absences as an accountability indicator under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the sweeping federal education law passed in 2015.

In past years, the state monitored attendance by having schools report what percentage of students showed up for class each day and calculating average daily attendance. Because a vast majority of students attend school most of the time, the smaller number of students who were absent most often got lost in the data. The average daily absence rate across the state was just 6 percent in 2016-17, masking the significance of chronic absenteeism, according to Kirk.

Schools also keep a careful eye on truancy. State law outlines an intervention and disciplinary process, but only unexcused absences count toward truancy statistics.

“Any absence whether excused or unexcused affects student achievement,” Kirk said.

Falling further behind

At the state’s second largest school district in Lewiston, about 1,000 of the 6,000 students are considered chronically absent, according to the state’s data. Bill Webster, superintendent of Lewiston schools, said it’s been a longstanding challenge for his district and others across Maine.

“When a student misses a day, there’s some anxiety about coming into a school following an absence, and having missed out on what happened that day,” Webster said. That means the child might be more likely to miss multiple days, falling further and further behind classmates.

One of the most significant contributors to high absenteeism rates is the socioeconomic status of the communities served by a school, according to state education officials. The absenteeism rates appear to be especially pronounced in rural areas and large service center communities.

Statewide data show some correlation between chronic absenteeism and the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch (a common measure educators use to track poverty). That link appears to be stronger in high schools than in elementary and middle schools.

Webster said more kids are having problems at home than ever before, ranging from food insecurity to parents’ opioid abuse, and he sees more students being raised by grandparents or in unstable living situations.

The problem appears to be getting worse, he said, adding that schools and the state need to cooperate to reverse the trend.

‘Climate’ change

Webster has long been an advocate of dropping the average daily attendance measure because Lewiston’s average daily attendance was around 94 percent — a statistic that isn’t nearly as concerning as one-in-six students missing 18 or more days of school in a year.

It’s a good first step that builds awareness and provides a better scope of the problem, Webster said, but much more work will be needed, and schools won’t be able to do it alone.

One of the big keys to preventing chronic absences is improving the schools’ “climate and culture,” according to Kirk.

Part of that is as simple as changing how you communicate with a student or parent after an absence. Rather than handing out tardiness slips, questioning or criticising the student for being absent, schools should be handing out “welcome back” slips and told that the school is glad to have them back, Kirk said.

Improving school culture also means finding ways to engage students, reducing bullying and anxiety, and generally making the school a more enjoyable, or at least more tolerable, place.

Webster said school cooperation with community organizations will be key to turning around attendance problems. Lewiston was one of the founding districts of Count ME In, a statewide partnership of schools, communities and businesses that share and offer training and support geared toward improving attendance.

Another model can be found in Washington County, where Cobscook Community Learning Center’s Transforming Rural Experience in Education program (TREE) is partnering with several area schools and Maine universities to provide student counseling and teacher training to help intervene in student struggles outside of school that interfere with learning.

Webster said he’d like to see more involvement from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in tackling the issue. One helpful step, he argued, would be to reduce the age of required school attendance from 7 to 5, which would help establish good school attendance habits early and give schools the legal right to intervene and begin the truancy process if children have too many unexcused absences in their early years of school.

A legislative effort to change the age requirement faltered in 2015 after Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill. He said that the bill, while well-intentioned, would “interfere with the rights of parents to decide when their children are ready for school.” The vote to override the veto fell short.

National focus

Absenteeism has garnered more national attention in recent years. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education released data indicating that 14 percent of students across the country missed at least 15 days of school during the 2013-14 school year. But that information, based on the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), is now five years old and missed large chunks of the population due to incomplete data from some parts of the country, including swaths of rural Maine.

More than 200 educators and school staff from across the state gathered in Augusta for a summit focused on how schools and community groups can reduce chronic absenteeism.

Kirk said the Maine Department of Education will continue monitoring schools’ progress toward getting students back in the classroom, and provide support and advice wherever it might be needed.

The state eventually wants to see the statewide chronic absenteeism rate drop below 10 percent, but hasn’t set a timeline for when it wants to reach that goal.

“We don’t want to fall into an [No Child Left Behind]-type goal where it’s never attainable,” Kirk said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

Bangor Daily News writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.