Attendance director discusses problem of chronic absenteeism
By Shirley Shuman
One teenager had an appointment with her hairdresser. Another just wanted a day off from school, so he slept in. A fourth-grader “didn’t feel very well” although he had no fever or other symptoms. All three missed school. For these three and far too many others, missing school apparently does not seem serious. However, as Braxton County Attendance Director Tim Via explained, it can definitely become a serious problem if it turns into chronic absenteeism.
Via defined chronic absenteeism as “missing more than 10% of a school year—18 days total, or more.” During the 2022-23 school term, Braxton County had a 29% chronic absenteeism rate, which is just below the state’s 30%. In 2019, pre-Covid, the county’s chronic absenteeism rate was 24% and Via emphasized the 5 % rise in four years.
Currently the attendance director and the Communities in Schools representatives from each school are working to find additional ways to improve attendance. They realize the necessity of convincing parents as well as students that regular school attendance is vital to one’s learning. They are also urging principals, teachers, and staff to work toward lowering the absentee rate in each school in the county.
Those adults who spend five days a week in the classroom definitely understand the importance of school attendance and the dangers of chronic absenteeism. One, a fifth grade teacher, stressed, “Students’ regular attendance is important to me because it helps teach consistency and responsibility. When students miss instruction, it creates a gap causing students to fall behind.” The gap to which this instructor referred magnifies many times for those students chronically absent. The result may even be failure.
Still another fifth grade teacher stressed the importance of school attendance. “Attendance at school is very important. We want to see our students every day that we possibly can. Of course there are circumstances where absences are necessary, and we understand that. However, school is fast paced. Missing sets a child back and chronically missing leaves gaps that are very difficult to fill,” she emphasized.
Another instructor stated the result of absenteeism bluntly. “If students are not present, they cannot learn,” she said. “Absences cause frustration for everyone. In my second grade classroom, when a student is absent, it is hard to reteach the missing instruction.” Parents need to understand what these teachers are saying. Learning, especially in elementary schools, often comes in steps. If one misses too many steps, then that student cannot be successful.
According to Attendance Director Via, Braxton County’s individual schools’ 2022-23 chronically absent rate ranges from 14% to 36%. Sutton Elementary had the lowest absence rate at 14%, and Davis Elementary was second at 20%. Frametown Elementary’s 36% was highest. Other ranks included Burnsville 24%, Flatwoods 27%, Little Birch and Braxton Middle 33,% and Braxton County High 32%. During this period, 29% of Braxton County students were chronically absent, and nearly 50% of the total absences were unexcused, Mr. Via stressed.
Although her school had the lowest chronically absent rate, Sutton Elementary Principal Flora Cox said she and her school and staff are working to keep it under 10%. “We make attendance important to our students,” Cox said, “and we remind parents of that importance.” The principal continued to say that someone from the school calls the parents of students who are absent “to see if there is anything we can do to help and to remind them about parent’s notes and doctor’s excuses.”
Cox also explained the incentives they use to encourage students to attend regularly. She said that the Communities in Schools representative, Susan Schiefer, sponsors many attendance incentives. Currently, Schiefer explained, Lucky Duck is a popular incentive. “It is a random drawing for which students must be present to win,” she said. “The prize is a rubber ducky.” Others used at Sutton Elementary include BINGO, held monthly for students who have two or fewer absences. The school winner receives prizes. A third is called Homeroom Greatness Competition.
Davis Elementary’s Communities in School Representative Cindy Pendry explained that one of that school’s attendance incentives, So Glad You’re Here, allows the class with the best attendance each month to choose a song to be played over the school’s intercom. Another involves each student in attendance receiving a sticker to place on the card already distributed. After a designated time, students turn in their cards to Pendry. Anyone who has all five stickers will receive nine more cards. A winner is chosen in a random drawing. Pendry also mentioned working with chronically absent students.
Lori Stover-Williams, principal of BCHS explained that the high school uses the Positive Behavior Intervention Support program to encourage good attendance. In one activity each nine weeks, students who improved in all areas are treated to a field trip or an on-campus activity. Then, there is the Rising and Soaring Eagle. The Rising Eagle relates to those who have improved; the Soaring Eagle is at the top of the class. Attendance is tied into all these activities.
While the attendance director, Communities in Schools site coordinators, principals, and teachers are working hard to combat the problem of chronic absenteeism, it is vital that parents join the battle. Attendance director Via explained the importance of what all those involved are doing but sends a special message to parents, too.
“Braxton County Schools want to raise the public’s awareness of chronic absenteeism and our chronic absenteeism rate. We understand that there are times when your child must be absent from school. At all other times, please reinforce the importance of education to your child by having them attend school. It will help them succeed in school and will establish habits of good attendance in work and life,” Director Via stressed.