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Absenteeism Is School Officials' 'Major Problem'

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When absenteeism increased last year in the Dallas Independent School District, resulting in the loss of more than $1 million in state aid, school officials drafted a new policy requiring that any student who misses more than 10 classes during the school year automatically receive a failing grade.

In New York City, school officials have implemented a variety of special programs designed to attack the same problem--daily absenteeism runs at about 23 percent of the district's high-school students. But despite its efforts, the district estimates that millions of dollars in state aid were lost this year.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials say absenteeism ranges from about 3 percent for elementary students to 7 percent for high-school students--close to the national average. But district officials are concerned about the rate nonetheless, because the state provides 80 percent of the district's revenues. The number of students who skipped school last year cost the district between $30 million and $40 million this year.

Although absenteeism is not a new problem, it is a vexing and costly one for many school districts nationwide--especially in urban areas, where the effects of declines in the youth population, of "white flight," and of worsening economic conditions are pronounced.

New York and Texas are among about 10 states where school systems receive state aid based on the number of days students actually spend in school. Other states rely on either average enrollment figures, categories of educational programs, or a combination of approaches when figuring school aid.

And although no current national information exists on school-district attendance patterns, anecdotal reports from large cities around the country suggest that school officials are having a harder time keeping their high-school students regularly in class, and that chronic absenteeism is a continuing--and in some cases, growing--problem.

Cause for Concern

An absenteeism rate of 10 percent or more is cause for concern, contends James W. Keefe, director of research for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (nassp).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces), the absenteeism rate nationwide is about 6 percent for students in kindergarten through the 12th grades. Among the nation's urban school systems, the absenteeism rate is about 15 percent--and often much higher when only high-school students are considered, according to nces

nces does not collect data on absenteeism among high-school students. An informal survey of urban school-system officials indicates that the rate of absenteeism last year among secondary students varied widely.

In New York City and Philadelphia, an average of 27 percent of the high-school students were absent each day; in Boston, the rate was 22 percent; in Baltimore, 20 percent; in Dallas and Chicago, 14 percent; in Los Angeles, 8 percent; in Hawaii, 7 percent; in Houston, 5 percent; and in Atlanta, 4 percent.

"The problem is as old as schooling itself," said Mr. Keefe of nassp "It frequently is the issue that administrators cite as the major problem they must contend with, and not discipline, as cited in public opinion polls," Mr. Keefe said.

Because a district's financial base tends to erode when absenteeism climbs, budget problems multiply, according to C. Kent McGuire, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

"The issue is that while students are not there, school facilities must still be maintained and teachers are still there to operate the classrooms," Mr. McGuire said.

Moreover, he added, absenteeism raises questions about a school system's ability to meet academic goals and maintain accountability to the community.

"When school administrators and boards are going to the public for mill levies, they need to be able to demonstrate that kids are coming to schools, performing well, and able to go to college," said Mr. McGuire.

Various Reasons

Robert Terte, spokesman for the New York City schools, said absenteeism may reflect the student's perception of the schools' programs. But, he added, "You can't look at [absenteeism] in isolation, there are a number of reasons why kids don't come to school."

Acknowledging the complexities of the problem, Mr. Keefe nevertheless suggests it can be countered successfully. "It's just a matter of finding effective ways of dealing with it," he said.

In many districts, dealing with absenteeism has meant hiring additional truant officers and improving record-keeping practices. Others, like Dallas, have implemented more stringent attendance policies and have increased their contacts with the parents of truant students.

The plan being considered by the Dallas school board would "eliminate all loopholes" in the existing policy, according to Gerald King, the district's director of pupil accounting. Under the current policy, five "unexcused" absences each semester result in an automatic failing grade. But that policy, according to Mr. King, is not working well because "everyone found a way to justify their absences."

If the proposed policy is enacted, all absences--excused and unexcused--will be counted. Any exceptions will be determined by a special review panel.

"What we want to discourage are the vacation ski trips and baby-sitting jobs that keep students out of school," Mr. King said.

In the past 10 years, Dallas's absenteeism rate for all grades has improved slightly (from 12 percent in 1973 to about 9 percent this year).

Although each school system's approach to the problem is different, most appear to be working on it, with mixed results.

Several years ago, Baltimore school officials launched a major campaign to clean up the district's record-keeping process. The overall attendance rate is about 85 percent and has been holding at that level for the past two years.

Baltimore's former school superintendent, John L. Crew, said recently that the high mobility of students' families made it difficult for the schools to keep track of the students.

Absenteeism in the Los Angeles school district has begun to decline since the district assigned three-member teams to counsel truant students. In another program for the elementary schools, students are motivated to attend school through weekly awards.

William C. Rivera, a spokesman for the school district, said absenteeism last year cost the district from $8,600 at one elementary school to about $500,000 at one high school. On any given day, the overall attendance rate for the 550,000 students in the district is about 88 percent.

In New York City, school officials have implemented a number of measures to keep chronic truants in school, from morning wake-up calls and counseling to alternative-education programs. Despite the district's efforts, a survey conducted recently at the request of The New York Times found that more than a third of the city's high-school students are habitually absent. The attendance rate for all grades was about 80 percent last year.

A 1-percent increase in attendance at the high-school level would have added up to $40 million for the city's school budget this year, according to Angelo J. Aponte, director of the district's pupil services. The Boston School Committee this year provided money to hire 16 people whose primary function is to contact the parents of students who are absent for more than two days and to represent the system in any necessary court action, according to a spokesman for the district.

In addition, school officials have begun a complete overhaul of the system's attendance program; the district's overall attendance rate was about 82 percent last year.

The San Francisco Unified School District saved about $2 million last year because of a two-year-old computer system, which gives school officials prompt information on students who have been absent three days or more.

When a student is absent for five days, the computer kicks out a postcard, which is sent to the student's parents.

After 10 consecutive days of absence, a school representative makes a "home visit." Last year, the absentee rate was about 6 percent.

For the last four years, the absentee rate among students in Houston has held steady at 5 percent because of a "real strict" attendance policy, according to a spokesman. Students who miss six days in one semester receive a failing grade; "illnesses are negotiable," the spokesman said.

School officials have been attempting to keep potential dropouts in school through vocational programs, career-information programs, schools for pregnant students, and a school specifically for dropouts. The district also offers day care for students with children.

Historical Perspective

Nancy Karweit, a researcher at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University, sees the current absenteeism situation, in part, from the perspective of history. Today's national attendance average of 94 percent is significant when compared with the 59 percent that was the case a hundred years ago, she pointed out. But the disparity in rates among schools today is much greater, she added.

Moreover, said Ms. Karweit, many countermeasures result in only temporary improvements because "they are not part of the intrinsic nature of the schools."

And outside pressures complicate the problem for both schools and students, according to Mr. Terte of the New York City school system. "Our concern is getting students prepared to function in society," he said. "But, how do you motivate a student to stay in school? It used to be that getting a job was motivation enough; but they see that there are no jobs and they figure 'what's the point of coming to school?"'

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