An Empty Desk is an Opportunity Missed

When students miss class, not only do they lose out on important instructional time, but they also miss opportunities to build critical connections with other students and adults. While students are identified as truant when they miss multiple unexcused days of school in a row, students who miss many non-sequential days (excused or unexcused) can fly under the radar. When these absences add up to more or a month or more of school, students are considered “chronically absent.”

At a national level, an estimated 7.5 million students are considered chronically absent each year. In some states, this translates to 1 in 5 students that do not regularly attend.

While missing one or two days of school each month may seem like a non-issue, time away can quickly accumulate and negatively impact mathematics and reading achievement during that school year as well as in the years that follow. For example, chronic absence in kindergarten has a negative impact on academic performance and socio-emotional skills, critical building blocks to success.

“Students cannot learn or develop or demonstrate how brilliant they are if they are not in school on time every day,” said David Johns, executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. “It is essential that all caring and concerned adults help ensure our students show up, feel safe and are engaged in the spaces they need to move through daily.”

African American youth are more likely to miss school as they face more barriers to attendance, such as logistical challenges (think unreliable transportation), school suspension/expulsion or residential instability (consider homelessness or frequent moves). Fortunately, there is an old proverb that guides us to the solution: it takes a village to ensure that all children, especially African American children are present in order to learn and develop on a consistent basis.

To increase attendance and reduce the impact of chronic absence we must identify students who are or may be at risk of chronic absence and  design an intervention that best meets their need.

A new report from Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign, Mapping the Early Attendance Gaps, found that chronic absence is a problem in every state, with kindergartners missing nearly as much school as teenagers. The study also found that excused absences contribute to many of these missed days. For example, students miss 14 million days a year to asthma, a condition that afflicts African American students at higher rates than other students. Dental problems lead to another 2 million missed days each year.

“Too often, absences aren’t seen as a problem as long as they’re excused,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. “Or schools and families only worry when a child misses several days in a row and fail to recognize the cumulative impact of missing a day every couple weeks. In fact, research shows all absences matter for student success.”

“As a school leader we constantly had to remind parents that high school was not the time to be hands off with their scholars.” said Khalilah Harris, deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. “It was critical for us to use tools like advisory and restorative circles to ensure every student felt safe and had at least one, if not more, adult who knew them well enough to notice and intervene when something was wrong and to celebrate when something was really right.”

Reaching the 7.5 million students who aren’t in their seats is possible and change begins with each of us. Tell your schools to collect data and identify students who need our support. Reach out and form a relationship that can make a lasting difference. Once you have made that connection, reach out to another caring and concerned adult to do the same. An empty desk is an opportunity missed, but the opportunities in a filled classroom with adults monitoring and championing students behind the scenes are limitless.

Lauren Mims is a graduate student at the University of Virginia and a fellow with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.