AKRON, Ohio — Data from the Ohio Department of Education shows Ohio's chronic school absenteeism rate was 24% in the 2020-2021 school year.
“Just under a fourth of our students were missing 18 days or more. And so that is significantly higher than what we'd seen in pre-pandemic years,” said Brittany Miracle, an assistant director in ODE’s Office of Whole Child Support. “Students who are chronically absent at any point in high school are 89% percent less likely to graduate on time than their non-chronically absent peers.”
That’s a substantial increase from the two school years prior which saw chronic absenteeism at 16.7% in 2018-2019 and 16% in 2017-2018.
“I would say the pandemic exacerbated chronic absenteeism in Ohio,” said Miracle.
The chronic absenteeism rate is even higher in Akron Public Schools. Truancy Officer Josh Allen said it currently stands at 44% in 2022. He said the rate was 21% in 2018, 23% in 2020, and 41% in 2021.
He said there are many factors contributing to that increase, like engagement and technology challenges during remote learning, and even more now that kids are back in-person.
“Kids aren't in school feeling nurtured and loved by teachers. They're afraid to come to school because of health issues. They're afraid to come to school because of safety issues walking to school,” said Allen.
He and his team are working to eliminate the barriers some families face that make it difficult for kids to get to class with what’s called whole child support, which means meeting their social-emotional, physical, and safety needs.
It's a strategy ODE is also implementing to address chronic absenteeism. The department also hired an attendance adviser in 2021. Miracle said planning for that position was in the works before the pandemic, so it wasn’t in response to the chronic absenteeism issues Ohio has dealt with over the past two years, but the adviser is helping to address those issues.
“He gets a lot of phone calls from schools, districts, families and juvenile courts just needing to troubleshoot problems all the way from, ‘I can't get my teenager to school. What do I do?’ to school districts saying, ‘How do I record this absence?’ So we've seen a lot of those questions come through, like the students quarantined. What does that mean? How do I code it? Should they be excused? Should they be unexcused? So he helps districts work through what the law says with what their attendance policy says,” said Miracle.
At Akron Public Schools, Allen said they do everything from making calls, sending out letters, and giving out incentives.
“When I call, the first thing I ask is, ‘How can I help you get your kid to school? What's the barrier standing in the way?’ Maybe it's alarm clocks. They don't have anybody to wake them up. Maybe it's transportation, maybe they have to have babysitters,” said Allen.
District workers, called student service drivers, also drive from neighborhood to neighborhood knocking on doors to reach parents face-to-face.
“We try to do 10 a day. Sometimes it's more, sometimes it's less,” said student service driver Terry Blash.
At each home, Blash attempts to speak to the parent of the truant child. However, if no one is home, he leaves a door hanger with Allen’s contact information at the home instructing them to call him so they can brainstorm solutions to help the child get back to school.
His duties don’t stop there. Blash said his days are full. He also transports children who get sick in school and don’t have a way to get home, takes parents to and from district headquarters for meetings, and brings school supplies, like laptops, to students who need them for remote learning at home.
“You encounter angry people, and you just say, ‘Hey, have a good day.’ You leave your tag and you don't confront them. And some people, they'll tell you what the problem is. They may not have a car or they don't get off work in time to take them to school, or some other issues they may have. They may have little ones there and the older ones are there watching. And then you have your normal truancy,” said Blash.
Are their efforts working? Allen said the results aren’t always immediate, but he knows they’re making a difference.
“There are positive things that come out of everything that we do. Maybe not seeing it right now. But we'll see it in the long run when we see the kids getting better grades,” said Allen.
For Blash, he said it's all about taking ‘the little wins’ and remembering just how important the work he’s doing is.
“If Akron public schools didn't care… no one would do anything. [There would] be a lot of lost kids, or basically it's like what Josh says, they’re trying to break down walls or barriers to find out what the issues are to get the kids to school. That's what we try to do. We just try to get them to school so they can get their education. It's a hard world out there,” said Blash.
Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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