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In many Spokane County schools, about 30 percent of students are chronically absent

September 13, 2018

Around the nation, this is Attendance Awareness Month – not that educators in Spokane need any reminding.

In the Spokane Public Schools last year, chronic absenteeism – defined as missing 10 to 15 percent of school days – was 29.3 percent. That number is little changed from the year before, but still a big source of concern.

The reasons are almost as varied as the student body: academic struggles, fear of bullying and an unstable home environment are some of the biggest.

The key word is awareness, said Adam Swinyard, the district’s chief academic officer, who also presented those numbers Wednesday night to the district’s board of directors.

“Raising awareness in the home, that’s an area we want to improve on,” Swinyard said. “Once you hit that 10 percent (of missed school days), we start seeing significant drops, even with strong students.”

Last year, more than 4,064 students hit that unwelcome threshold, which includes both excused and unexcused absences.

Another 1,934, or 6 percent, were classified as moderately chronic after missing between 15 and 20 percent of their classes.

Unfortunately, statistics don’t come in the form of a bell curve. Students with severe chronic absence – defined as missing 20 percent or more of their classes – number 3,343, or almost 1 of 9 students in the district.

Not surprisingly, the problem worsens with age; last year chronic absenteeism in Spokane was 22 percent in elementary school, 32 percent for middle-schoolers and 42 percent at the high school level.

The overall numbers reflect those from the state, which in 2015-16 reported a 29.1 chronic absentee rate that ranked second in the nation behind Maryland.

The only bright spot in the region that year was Mead, which reported a 6.5 percent chronic absentee rate.

That same year, the chronic absentee rate was 34.2 percent at Central Valley, 37.4 percent at West Valley and 28.7 percent at East Valley.

The ties between attendance and academic success are abundantly proven by research.

A recent study in California of chronically absent kindergartners and first-graders showed that by the end of third grade, only 1 in 6 of them were proficient readers.

For those who missed less than 5 percent of school, two-thirds were proficient.

The detrimental effects are long-lasting. In a Rhode Island study, only 11 percent of high school students with chronic absences made it to their second year of college.

For regular high school attendees, the number was 51 percent.

Closer to home, statistics at Garry Middle School showed that most students with 95 percent attendance or better performed better than state norms, especially in language arts.

“When they’re in the seats, good things happen,” Swinyard said.