Beth works hard to create engaging learning experiences every day for her students, the majority of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. She knows that an energizing curriculum along with a caring classroom matters. If students are challenged while still having fun, they’re more likely to show up for class. But she also knows that teachers are not solely responsible for student attendance. “Many of my students are absent because they have to stay home to watch younger siblings because their parents have to work and daycare isn’t available. I’ve had other students stay home because of depression, anxiety, and worries about severe family problems.”
Beth, like many other teachers who work in high-poverty schools, appreciates the sentiment behind the “fifth indicator” of Colorado’s new system to determine a school’s quality. This “fifth indicator” is part of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). Rather than just relying on test scores to determine the quality of a school, states also identify a non-academic measure. To determine that measure, Colorado Department of Education gathered input over 15 months. That included a listening tour with over 170 meetings and more than1500 people across the state. Colorado landed on a reduction of chronic absenteeism, defined as a student missing 10% of the time, for K-8 and a reduction in the dropout rate for high school.
Both chronic absenteeism and the dropout rate are serious problems in Colorado. Not surprisingly, the rate of chronic absenteeism rises with the number of students with free and reduced lunch. As an example, Douglas County, a wealthy suburban district, has a rate of only 4%. But it’s a different story in impoverished areas in the state. For instance, in the San Luis Valley, nearly half the students are chronically absent. The connection of absenteeism to graduation is clear: chronically absent students frequently struggle with reading and stand a higher chance of not graduating.
Like Beth, Grace teaches students from poverty. Absenteeism is one of her major frustrations. She can list the ways the school has attempted to decrease absences over the years: withdrawing students from class when they miss 10+ periods of one class, assigning detention, not allowing makeup work. None of the punitive measures worked. Like Beth, she notes that many of her students are absent because of factors out of the school’s control: parents who speak little English, family emergencies, and the list goes on.
This year Grace is working with students in a credit recovery program; however, she is not convinced that the program will make a difference: “I can juggle chainsaws on fire. If life is more traumatic than that, there’s nothing more I can do to engage them. I can’t physically drag them here or I would have done that a long time ago.”
Grace’s words capture what many teachers feel, “I love teaching, but man, it’s so tough right now.”