Parents might notice Tennessee schools cracking down on absences.
The Tennessee Department of Education added chronic absenteeism to the state’s accountability system, which is used to drive student growth and school improvements.
Chronic absenteeism is classified by the education department as missing 10 percent or more of the days the student is enrolled. For most Tennessee school districts, this means missing more than 18 days per school year and includes excused and unexcused absences.
National data points to chronic absenteeism as a factor in poor academic performance. According to the department, Tennessee students who are chronically absent in kindergarten are 15 percentage points less likely to reach proficiency in either 3rd math or English language arts, and the state’s 9th-grade students who are chronically absent in ninth grade are 30 percent less likely to earn an on-time diploma (62 percent vs. 92 percent).
In order to crack down on chronic absenteeism, the state developed a Chronically Out-of-School Indicator to help districts see the number of students chronically absent each school year.
Data from three previous school years (2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18) show that the state’s average is about 13 percent for those three school years. We looked at data in our region to determine how schools in our area are doing in terms of chronic absenteeism.
The school systems we included in the data for Northeast Tennessee include: Bristol City Schools, Carter County Schools, Elizabethton City Schools, Greene County Schools, Greeneville City Schools, Hawkins County Schools, Johnson City Schools, Johnson County Schools, Kingsport City Schools, Rogersville City Schools, Sullivan County Schools, Unicoi County Schools and Washington County Schools.
The regional average clings close to the state average and below the averages for Knox County, Shelby County and Metro Nashville Public School systems. The regional median is at or below the state average for all three school years.
Carter County Schools show the largest percentages of chronically-absent students – numbers for the three school years are more than 20 percent, and Carter County recorded the highest percentage recorded for the three school years at 27 percent for the 2016-17 school year.
Unicoi County had the second-highest percentage of chronically-absent students, reaching 20 percent in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. Greeneville City Schools recorded the lowest numbers at 7 percent for the 2015-16 school year and 6 percent for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.
Local school districts are re-examining their policies and coming up with creative solutions to reduce chronic absenteeism rates.
“We’re concerned about our rate in Carter County and we’re taking some steps to make improvements,” said Jerri Nave, the school system’s director of federal programs.
She said the district is considering requiring make-up days on the weekends and changing school board policy.
“Parents are allowed three call-ins per semester for excused absences, no one else allows that many so that is something we may look at,” Nave said.
Greg Sturgill, attendance supervisor for Hawkins County schools, said a lack of resources at home can keep kids out of school.
“They miss the bus and have a hard time finding transportation. There’s poor access to healthcare. We try to reach out to those students who’re chronically absent and to all of our students to say, ‘how can we help you?'” Sturgill said.
He said September is their Attendance Awareness Month, when students are encouraged to make posters, create videos and write essays for a district-wide competition.
“The students will have to work in our slogan, which is strive for less than five, because we’re encouraging our students to miss less than five school days each year,” Sturgill said.
He said the school system also offers incentives by using donations from local businesses.
“Establishing those habits in high school gets them more prepared for those jobs in the future,” said Sturgill. “That’s why these businesses are so eager to participate.”
The state recommends a 3-tier approach to improving attendance. Tier 1 is implementing universal strategies to encourage attendance, Tier 2 is aimed at students who miss more than 10 percent of instructional days and Tier 3 is intervention for students who miss more than 20 percent of instructional days.
Attendanceworks.org notes that a “legal” response should only be used as a last resort in cases of chronic absenteeism.