Schools in our community strive to be places where students feel safe, respected and connected to their peers and the staff. However, entering high school can be an intimidating experience no matter what the school’s environment is like.
For Jessica, ninth grade was especially difficult. Her father, a single parent, was raising two kids and struggling to make ends meet. He had difficulty conveying the importance of school to his Gretna High School freshman.
Jessica soon began to avoid school, the place where most students find refuge. She frequently arrived late for class. Sometimes, she didn’t show up at all. She often explained her absences by saying she felt ill.
Jessica’s story reveals barriers that cause students to miss school. The statistics drive home the enormity of the problem. More than 8 million students nationwide miss so many school days each year they are considered chronically absent, according to Attendance Works, a national initiative on school attendance. Chronic absence is defined as missing 10 percent or more school days due to absences of any kind.
More than 18,000 students attending public schools in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area were chronically absent, missing 18 or more days, in the 2016-17 school year. Cumulatively, that means they each missed nearly a month of school. Experts know that can translate into third-graders being unable to master reading, sixth-graders failing subjects and ninth-graders dropping out of school.
Taking a community approach to address chronic absenteeism, the United Way of the Midlands, in partnership with the Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services (GOALS) Center, leads the School Based Attendance Coalition, a network of nearly 30 school districts, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations.
“Schools can’t solve the attendance problem alone,” said Dr. Martha Bruckner, a longtime public schools administrator and director of the Metropolitan Omaha Education Consortium. “We need an entire community to join together in a collaborative effort to affirm to students and parents that school attendance is important. Grandparents, employers, shopkeepers and others should feel compelled to encourage students to be in school.”
Entering its sixth year, the coalition aims to draw attention to the importance of attending class. Bookend events – an Aug. 31 kickoff at River’s Edge Pavilion in Council Bluffs and an Attendance Matters Conference on Oct. 4 at the Mid-America Center – mark September as Attendance Awareness Month.
Melissa Mayo, director of community impact and education for the United Way of the Midlands, explained the messages that drive the coalition’s efforts:
• The issues surrounding chronic absences are complex. Students face many barriers.
• A community effort is necessary to provide supports and interventions to help students and their parents overcome those barriers.
• The solution begins with raising awareness of our local chronic absence rates.
As part of Attendance Awareness Month, students are seeing posters, backpack stuffers and other items – aimed at promoting attendance – in their schools. A social media campaign launched by the coalition carries the same message.
Mayo said driving home the importance of attending class early is key. “Students solidify their habits at the beginning of the school year. If you start the school year missing class, absenteeism tends to persist.”
Jessica bucked that trend. She learned coping mechanisms to deal with her anxiety, and she started to look forward to school. With support from school and community resources, she went from missing, on average, one day a week during her freshman year to being absent just two days her entire sophomore year.
Now, she attends Wayne State College.