Credit: George Danby

Every morning at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, my colleagues and I can be found in the hallways at 10 minutes to 8 greeting every student who passes by while discussing school issues and activities for the upcoming day. While many of our students regularly walk this hallway on their way to first period, a growing subset of our population is often not in the hall in the morning, routinely missing classes, and falling further and further behind their peers. It is an existential and worsening problem in American schools.

This phenomenon is chronic absenteeism, and it is a concern that extends beyond one grade level, one school, or one state. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, Maine, along with 33 other states, began working with school districts to start collecting and reporting attendance data. The most common benchmark across states is that when a student misses 10 percent of the school year (18 days), he/she is considered chronically absent.

Analysis shows that Maine’s long-term chronic absenteeism trend remains higher than the 2013-14 national average of 15 percent, which prompted the data collection in the first place. Although the general public may be baffled as to how so many students could miss so many days, just two days per month missed in a nine-month academic calendar is enough to qualify for this label.

Maine, by virtue of its population and geography, has unique challenges in getting young people to school. For example, many of our rural students must travel long distances, and many more are burdened by poverty, food insecurity, and Adverse Childhood Experiences that impact their ability to regularly attend school.

Schools are designed to be places of empowerment and positive change; education is the path to self-betterment and community betterment. When a child who is working to overcome barriers to success misses a day of regularly scheduled school, it is an opportunity missed. There are no snow dates or mud dates to compensate.

According to the Hamilton Project/ Brookings Institution and the nonprofit Attendance Works, a student’s prolonged/regular absence from school often results in lower performance in classes, disenfranchisement from the school community and extracurricular activities, and reduced access to essential services that schools provide such as supplemental nutrition programs, special education/social services coordination, and reporting of neglect and abuse. Furthermore, school districts in Maine are currently undertaking tremendous efforts to re-engage students and families by providing 21st century learner technology, STEM applications courses, increased offerings at Career and Technical Education centers, augmented diversity and inclusion practices, and differentiated instruction with multiple pathways to permit students to take greater ownership of their learning and futures. The state of Maine and its schools are working diligently to present students and families with more options and avenues for educational success than have existed at any point in the past, but if the students are not present, they are unable to benefit from any of this work.

We strive to cultivate young people who are intellectually well-rounded, socio-emotionally intelligent, and adequately prepared for the advantages and challenges of 21st century life and work, but this requires an even greater emphasis be put on being at school every day.

Schools, community members, health service providers, and families must all work together to implement engagement strategies that help bring kids to class. Communication with students via text messaging, building understanding about the value of education to parents through mail and in-person meetings, and scheduling healthcare appointments outside of the school day, are just a few ways to tackle the problem. Combating chronic absenteeism in Maine will take a cross-sector approach, building a culture of attendance where all Mainers help students be present and successful at school every day.

Joseph Hennessey teaches English at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford. He is the 2018 Piscataquis County Teacher of the Year and 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year.