Wednesday, February 22, 2017

AV#158 - Attendance and Chronic Absences - Colorado schools

Attendance & Absences – if 90% of life is showing up …

1.  Did you know that in several Colorado districts, 25%–30% of students are chronically absent—“absent 15 or more school days during the school year”[i]? (Neither did I!)
2.  Do we think families care about, and know, the attendance rate at the school their child attends? If so, are they being told how many students are NOT showing up—all too often?
3.  We all want schools to be accountable for student learning.  To what degree is the school responsible for a student’s absences?  If we can equate high absences with poor achievement, is it fair to ask schools to be responsible for so many students being chronically absent?

It appears that Colorado (among other states[ii]) will soon add chronic absences as a key component for school accountability—at least for 2018-19, for K-8 schools.  (See excerpt from draft of Colorado’s ESSA Plan, 2/10/17.[iii])  As a teacher and coach, I always felt showing up mattered, and I cheer all efforts to focus more on student attendance. A recent report invites the question:
Do we know how serious the problem is - especially for our high schools?

We first heard the figures last June, on the release of The 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) (see PRESS RELEASE, below). This fall, Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence[iv] used the data to point out a tragically high number of students chronically absent in districts across the country.[v]  Among Colorado’s larger districts with many students frequently not in school, here are five.  In just a handful of districts, we are talking about 40,000 students ….

School District
No. Students Chronically Absent
% Students Chronically Absent
% Pop. in Poverty Age 5-17
% Minority Students
Pueblo City – District 60
Adams County – 14
Harrison – District 2
(Addendum A presents a longer list from the report of chronic absentees—statistics on 25 Colorado districts for 2013-14. The CRDC found 9 districts with over 30% of students chronically absent.  In our state, it found 16% of students chronically absent.

It is startling, is it not—the notion that 3 in 10 students miss that much school in Pueblo and Adams 14?  That 1 out of 4 students in Denver are absent that often?

CDE-SchoolView-District Dashboard -  2013-14
School District
Attendance rate
Pueblo City – District 60
Adams County – 14
Harrison – District 2
And it is news when it tells a starkly different message than what the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) reports in presenting district numbers. For that same school year, here are the numbers CDpublishes for those five districts. (See box)

So yes, this struck us as news. And important. No wonder that over 20 publications across the country picked up the story—see examples at Sadly, it was not reported by either The Denver Post or Chalkbeat Colorado.

Washington, D.C., June 7, 2016
   The release of the first-ever national compilation of data on how many public school students are missing so much school they are academically at risk shows the country is facing a crisis of chronic absence that’s keeping millions of kids from learning.
   The national data released today by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that more than 6.5 million students (13%) missed 15 or more days of school (nearly a month of school) during the 2013-14 academic year....
   Among high schools, three million students (18%) were chronically absent….
   The national data also shows that some populations experience significantly higher rates of chronic absenteeism. Within the high school group, chronic absence rates were 26% for American Indian or Alaska Native students, 22% for African American students, 21% for Multiracial, 25% for Pacific Islander students and 20% for Latino students.

Thanks to The Durango Herald, one Colorado community had a look at the grim facts—specific to their schools. The Herald’s Shane Benjamin dug into the Civil Rights report and produced a careful analysis. (Any reason The Denver Post could not blast this same headline across the top of page 1?)

Absentee rates above average in our schools
A fourth of students miss 15 days or more of school in La Plata County
July 2, 2016 (Bold mine)
Nearly a quarter of students attending public schools in La Plata County during the 2013-14 school year missed 15 days or more – almost twice the national average, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education.
It is an alarming statistic considering what educational experts know about chronic absenteeism: Excessive absences can be an early sign that children are experiencing physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental-health issues, symptoms of poverty, suicidal tendencies and other problems in the home….
“Clearly, absenteeism is a concerning problem across the country and in Colorado, because children cannot learn if they are not in school. Research has shown that chronic absenteeism is one of the greatest causes of low academic achievement...”
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education
John B. King Jr., U.S. secretary of education, called it a “national problem. Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child’s education,” he said in a news release. “Missing school leads to low academic achievement and triggers dropouts. Millions of young people are missing opportunities in postsecondary education, good careers and a chance to experience the American dream.”
Colorado absenteeism ranked even higher [than the 13% national average], at 16.3 percent, and La Plata County ranked higher yet, at 24.2 percent – meaning almost 1 in 4 kids missed 15 days or more.
Chronic absenteeism was highest in Ignacio School District (37.2 percent) followed by Bayfield School District (29.4 percent) and Durango School District (20.8 percent), according to numbers crunched by the Associated Press.
 (More excerpts from The Herald’s look at attendance and truancy in La Plata County at Addendum B.)

Do you doubt these numbers?  And if they are true, why do we see those 92% and 93% figures for our districts, quoted earlier?  The national initiative, Attendance Works – Advancing Student Success by Reducing Chronic Absence, explains:

Most schools pay far more attention to average daily attendance (the percentage of students who show up each day to school) and unexcused absences (truancy.) Both figures can mask the problem with chronic absence. For example, a school of 200 students with 95 percent average daily attendance could still have 60 students missing a month of school over the course of the year. (For more, see comments from Robert Balfanz, John Hopkins University’s School of Education, Addendum C.)

Furthermore, we know the district rate includes all 13 “grades,” K-12, and we know that elementary attendance is much better than it is for high schools.  So let’s look more closely at attendance and truancy rates at individual high schools, which CDE also reports. We find many where fewer than 90% showed up on an average day last year.  Now we see how plausible it is that, with so many students not in class on any given day, a large percentage might well fit the category: “chronically absent.” (The problem is all too real for elementary schools as well, even if less pronounced.  See quote from Judith Martinez, director of the office of dropout prevention and student re-engagement for the Colorado Department of Education, in Addendum B on kindergartners and reading.  See also Addendum D.)

North High, West High, others too - in the mid 1990’s

In looking at specific high schools, I recall my visits to West and North High roughly 20 years ago. Richard Bock was one of the most dedicated and capable teachers I met during my years in Denver.  The number of students enrolled in his English class might be 34. But on my visits, the number present was often half that. Richard connected well with his students; no one could blame him for the absences.

Last year, a better story: attendance at West Leadership Academy was 90%, and at North High, 91%. Overall, though, figures for many high schools in Denver and the metro area look terrible.

Denver Public Schools – Over 21,000 students chronically absent?

The Civil Rights Data Collection found that over 21,000 Denver students were chronically absent.  And what we see reveals the correlation (cause or effect? both, don’t you agree?) between attendance and academic performance.  It should surprise no one to see the match here between Denver’s top middle and high schools—and strong attendance.  Or conversely, to see schools Accredited on Priority or on Turnaround—where attendance is often below 90%.

2015-16 – Denver’s School Performance Framework and Attendance/Truancy Rates

High Schools

SPF rating*
% points
Truancy Rate
KIPP Denver Leadership Academy
DSST Green Valley Ranch
DSST Stapleton

Accredited on Priority Watch
John Kennedy
Accredited on Priority Watch
Martin Luther King Jr./Sr. High
Accredited on Priority Watch
Abraham Lincoln
Accredited on Priority Watch

Venture Prep High
Accredited on Probation
West Early College
Accredited on Probation
 *Denver Public Schools- School Performance Framework -
**Colorado Department of Education–Attendance Information-
***NOTE: Most of the 18 schools in DPS with truancy rates in double digits are Alternative Education Campuses.  But this is not the case for Abraham Lincoln and Manual.

Middle Schools 

SPF rating
% points
Truancy Rate
DSST Byers Middle
DSST Conservancy Green Middle

Kepner Middle
Accredited on Probation
Henry World Grades 6-8
Accredited on Probation


Aurora – A lack of choice

At least Denver 8th graders searching for a good high school for next year have a range of choices.  But in Aurora, all four of its large high schools have poor attendance rates.  Note that as the attendance figures drop, so does the rating on the state’s School Performance Framework.
The 4 large APS high schools
# students enrolled
2016 - Colorado’s School
Performance Framework

Truancy rate*

Performance (highest rating)
Priority Improvement (2)**
Aurora Central
Turnaround – (6)**
**(2- second year on Priority Improvement; 6 – sixth year in a row on Priority Improvement or Turnaround)

It was good to see Aurora Central High speak directly to this issue in its Innovation School Application to the Colorado Department of Education (spring 2016).  (Bold mine)
“While the average attendance rate at ACHS remains steady, it has not surpassed 82% in the past four years. Additionally, chronic absenteeism is a significant problem for nearly two-thirds of all students. ACHS will not be able to increase attendance rates dramatically without additional targeted efforts to address chronic absenteeism.”$file/2016%20Aurora%20Central%20High%20School%20Innovation%20Application%20FINAL.pdf
As a small school advocate, I would like to show much better attendance at Aurora’s two small high schools.  Well, it is true for William Smith High (317 students; 94% attendance rate).  But not at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy (395 high school students).  AWCPA was also quick to acknowledge the empty chairs in classrooms in its own Innovation School Application to CDE.  (Bold mine) 
Another area of concern, though not a Priority Performance Challenge on the most recent UIP, is a high rate of chronic absenteeism, at 33%. This rate shows that currently many students are not engaged at AWCPA; they are at high risk of dropping out or graduating without the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. AWCPA’s graduation rate is about 59%.$file/Aurora%20West%20Innovation%20Application%20Final_04122016.pdf


Questions as state leaders debate what role attendance and chronic absences should play in school accountability

My main purpose here is to show that attendance is a huge problem, and to raise questions.  I know too little to make any recommendations, but just enough to ask ….

From Colorado’s ESSA Plan  (bold mine)
“Although this indicator is considered by researchers to be important in high schools, this will not be applied and/or considered for the high school level until consistent reporting methods are established for determining absences for high schools.”
1. High schools - If Colorado decides that chronic absences are important enough to make it part of school accountability for K-8 schools, why not high schools? (The current draft of Colorado’s ESSA plan—see box—gives one reason.)  People will offer innumerable reasons for why “it’s different with high schools, we can’t compare ….”  And many are valid.  

However, can we say it does not matter?  That it’s OK if—most days—15% of the students enrolled are missing on a daily basis, or that 25% of the students miss three weeks or more?  Especially when, as I believe the evidence tells us, woeful attendance in so many high schools is a key factor in their poor results?

At the very least, why not insist that any school required to write a Unified Improvement Plan speak to its attendance/chronic absence figures, and commit to a plan to improve them?  (See Addendum E.)

2. (Good) SPF ranking versus (Bad) attendance figures:  I find it revealing that, in spite of what I suggest earlier about a correlation between a low SPF and poor attendance, several high schools show attendance rates under 87%-and yet, on the latest SPF, are on Performance or Improvement.  Examples: Centennial and East High in Pueblo 60; Northglenn and Thornton High in Adams 12; and Greeley West and Northridge High in Greeley. (See details, Addendum F.)  If attendance and chronic absences were included in the accountability report for these high schools, wouldn’t their scores go down?

3.  Is the school responsible for who shows up? - Then again, would a lower score be fair?  Most of us believe schools can and should do more to see that students come—and stay. For many, this is the heart of education reform: creating a strong school culture where we know students well, and where students feel we care about them; rethinking school and class size to foster good relationships and a strong community; improving our teaching and the curriculum to meet students where they are and to nurture their growth, etc. etc.  All key factors to strengthen student engagement, their very desire to show up and learn.   
But do we make schools “accountable” for what, in many ways, is out of their hands?

I do not know.  It can seem quite simple to add attendance figures, and to “apply the algorithm” in a way that factors them into a school’s ranking.  But is it right? 

A colleague, teaching in Denver, tells me of her “own daily frustrations” on this issue. “No matter how good my instruction, if the student missed it, they didn’t learn. It is SO hard to be up against those odds. But … we really do try everything we can to get them to school. So what’s the solution? …. the dilemma cannot be overstated.”

“Judging” high schools for chronic absences, she believes, “neglects to recognize the impact of poverty.”  Policymakers would do well to hear her prediction if this becomes a new measure of high school accountability.  “You will find many teachers who will say, ‘How can they put this on us too?’”

“There are some tough cases in which no matter what a school does, a child is going to have attendance difficulties because of what's going on at home.  However, there are many things that are well within a school's ability to control.  These include addressing school climate issues such as bullying.  And they also include making sure disciplinary policies are geared toward repairing damage and bringing kids - including the offenders - closer to the school community rather than pushing them out with unnecessary suspensions.  Many schools have come a long way from the inadequate ideology that ‘we're here to teach the kids who want to be here,’ but there is more work to be done.” 
     Jodi Heilbrunn, National Center for School Engagement
All I can say with certainty is this:  A tragic number of students are, all too often, absent, and we must do more to tackle the issue. And we can.  (See box.  Statement to me from the National Center for School Engagement.)                                                                                                  

One obvious suggestion: to anyone who thinks the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights got it wrong—who doubts that 16% of Colorado’s students are chronically absent, that nearly 1/4 of Denver’s students and nearly 1/3 of the students in Adams 14 are chronically absent—let’s gather the data so we can all agree on the facts.  Preventing Missed Opportunities points to useful studies in several cities and a few states. See Addendum G: Examples Colorado can learn from.)

Preventing Missed Opportunities recommends six key steps “to reduce chronic absence.”  The first two are:
1.      Invest in consistent and accurate data.
2.      Use data to understand need and disproportionate impact in order to target resources.

Perhaps a good place to start.  Anything to avoid debating alternative facts.


Addendum A

School District
No. Students Chronically Absent
% Students Chronically Absent
% Pop. in Poverty Age 5-17
% Minority Students

Urban, metro

Pueblo City – District 60

Adams County - 14



Harrison – District 2

Northglenn-Thornton – 12


Greeley – District 6

Brighton – District 27J



Mesa County Valley - 51

Academy - District 20

St. Vrain Valley – District 12

Colorado Springs


Cherry Creek

Towns and Rural
Centennial - R-1

Trinidad - District 1

Ignacio – District 11-JT

Lake Cty - R-1

Alamosa District - RE-11J

Platte Valley - RE-7

Addendum B

Other excerpts from “Absentee rates above average in our schools”
The Durango Herald, July 2, 2016

   Missing classes creates a domino effect, making it increasingly difficult for a child to acquire fundamental building blocks to become successful readers in kindergarten or pass math classes in high school, said Judith Martinez, director of the office of dropout prevention and student re-engagement for the Colorado Department of Education. “Attendance, or lack of attendance, is an early warning sign that a student might be in the process of leaving school without completing it,” Martinez said….
   “There’s an interesting culture here in Durango that attendance is not important,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R. “It really is trying to shift that culture with parents and the community as a whole that attendance really is critical to good academic success.”

Haves and have-nots
   Poverty also presents a barrier to good attendance, she said. Parents who work two jobs or maintain odd hours are less likely to make sure their kids get to school or complete their homework.
Some parents pull their kids out of school to go on vacation or allow them to miss school to join a snowboard team, said Jennifer Turner, a program coordinator for La Plata Youth Services. 
   Those are the lucky ones.  Impoverished children experience more stress, tend to be malnourished and are less healthy overall, she said.  She recalled one student who withdrew from school because fellow students made fun of him for wearing Barney socks, which were handed down from his older brother. And another boy struggled with attendance after kids made fun of him for being dirty, Turner said. He was the youngest of four children, and all four had to share the same bathroom, so he never got his chance to shower and brush his teeth before going to school, Turner said.
   “We have a lot of kids in our community who are facing some really adverse life situations. They’re just not on the radar of our mainstream community,” she said….

Tip of the iceberg
   Ignacio School District may have been dealt a double whammy: About half of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches, meaning they come from poor families, and more than half are of Native American or Latino descent.
   According to the U.S. Department of Education data, ethnic minorities, especially Native Americans, are at a higher risk of being chronically absent.
   Of the 174 Native American students enrolled in the Ignacio School District during the 2013-14 school year, about 57 percent were chronically absent, according to the data.
   The school district works with families to identify the root causes for absenteeism, said Jaceson Cole, social worker for the district.
   Attendance problems tend to be the “tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Some students at disadvantage
   “It can be very frustrating to work with chronic absenteeism, because the problems are so complex,” Cole said. “Often, it’s issues that involve poverty, institutionalized racism, historical traumas, unaddressed mental-health issues – we find those across the board.”
   If a student is absent, the school district calls a family member, and if staff can’t get a hold of a family member, they often attempt a home visit, he said.
   “We really need the family’s involvement so we can identify exactly what is causing those symptoms, those underlying issues,” Cole said….
   “If the kids are not in the classroom, how can we educate them?” said Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of Ignacio School District. “You’ve got to change the whole culture of the community. It’s tough. It takes a couple of generations to make some changes.”...

The habit of being absent – truancy and absentee
   “It’s not enough to just focus on truancy,” Martinez said. “You have to focus on attendance overall, because a student missing 15 days of school, whether it was excused or unexcused, is 15 days of missing important instruction.”
   Martinez said schools need to create a culture of expectation around attendance. Parents might think it’s OK to pull a kindergartner from school, because they’ll miss coloring, she said. But kindergartners also receive the fundamental building blocks to learn how to read, and missing a few days can make a huge difference in their future education, she said.
   Missing school can become habit-forming at the secondary level. It is important for parents and school officials to respond immediately to identify and address the cause, which might include social anxiety or bullying, Martinez said.

Addendum C

The New York Times, May 17, 2012
‘Chronically Absent’ Students Skew School Data, Study Finds, Citing Parents’ Role
By Richard Perez-Pena   (Bold mine)

   Up to 15 percent of American children are chronically absent from school, missing at least one day in 10 and doing long-term harm to their academic progress, according to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
   They argue that policy makers tend to look at absenteeism in the wrong way, requiring districts and states to measure average daily attendance rates, but — with the exception of a few states — not focusing on the relatively small number of students who account for most absences. They found that some schools report an average of more than 90 percent daily attendance, masking the fact that 40 percent of their students are chronically missing.
   “We don’t see the problem clearly because, in most places, we don’t measure it, and average daily attendance really skews the way we view this,” said one of the authors, Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the university’s School of Education.

Addendum D

Elementary Schools – 11% chronically absent

Hedy Chang, co-author of Preventing Missed Opportunity, makes a strong case that attendance matters enormously in the first few years of school; see her report: Parent, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades.

And the Civil Rights Data Collection found that “more than 3.5 million elementary school students – or 11% of all elementary school students – are chronically absent” (

Addendum E

UIP’s: Isn’t poor attendance a “root cause”?

Each year, schools rated on Priority Improvement or Turnaround must complete a Unified Improvement Plan (UIP) for the Colorado Department of Education.  One would expect low-performing high schools to examine their poor attendance and high chronic absences in a section called Root Cause Analysis.  But we seldom see it.  Occasionally we’ll see a school address it, as Manual High did in its 2015-16 UIP:
Average daily attendance was consistently lower than district averages, so students regularly missed valuable instructional time; effective systems to increase attendance were inconsistently implemented.
More often than not, though, total silence on poor attendance—and what the school can do about it.
If Colorado adds chronic absences to the portrait of a school’s performance (see new ESSA plan), surely low-performing K-8 schools, and I would hope eventually high schools, won’t have a choice in their reports to the state. We have too much evidence that it is a crucial matter. Schools must confront the issue.  A good place to insist they do so is in their UIP.

Addendum F

(Good) SPF ranking versus (Bad) attendance figures: 
On PERFORMANCE (highest rating) or IMPROVEMENT – but fewer than 87% show up

Attendance, Truancy -  6 High Schools and SPF Ranking (2015-16)

Truancy rate
Colorado School
Performance Framework
East High – Pueblo
Northridge High - Greeley
Thornton High School – Adams 12
Northglenn High – Adams 12
Centennial High - Pueblo
Greeley West High - Greeley

Addendum G

Reports on Baltimore, Oakland, NYC, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island

Preventing Missed Opportunities also highlighted more detailed reports for the cities of Baltimore, Oakland, and New York, and for the entire state of Rhode Island—“looking at the intersection between grades and other dimensions like income, special education status or ethnicity…. Data from Rhode Island, for example, revealed that chronic absence is not only high in the early grades, it is much higher for children from low-income families and students with disabilities … in Oakland, Calif., the analyses reveal especially high rates of chronic absence in kindergarten, especially for black students.”

Reports such as Showing Up Matters: The State of Chronic Absenteeism in New Jersey; Showing Up, Staying In by Oregon’s Children’s Institute, or REL West’s Reducing Chronic Absence video offer excellent examples of how bright spots can be thoughtfully used to inspire action.

[i] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection, /list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf
[ii] Connecticut recently launched the Next Generation Accountability System. Chronic absenteeism is one of 12 indicators included in this new, broader set of performance measures aimed at offering a more comprehensive and holistic picture of how schools and students are performing.”
Virginia is leaning toward a plan that incorporates chronic absenteeism alongside test scores in gauging school performance, said Steven Staples, the state superintendent of public instruction.”
Indiana is one of many states that now requires schools to track chronic absence, and districts from Grand Rapids, Mich. to Milwaukee are tackling the challenge of tracking and reducing  absences.”
[iii] FROM CURRENT DRAFT OF COLORAO’S ESSA PLAN – Once finalized and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, to be submitted to federal government in April 2017. 
Section 4: Accountability, Support, and Improvement for Schools
 “School Quality or Student Success   -   Elementary/ Middle Schools   - Reduction in Chronic Absenteeism for Elementary/Middle Schools (Student engagement)”
“Chronic Absenteeism rates are currently being collected as part of the Colorado Department of Education School Discipline and Attendance data submission. The submission includes the reporting of the number of chronically absent students by school both overall and disaggregated by ethnicity/race, gender, special education, English language learner status, and homeless status. Starting with the 2018 data submission, the addition of free and reduced lunch status will need to occur to address the inclusion requirement for the disaggregated income subgroup.”
(This excerpt is just the first paragraph of a far more detailed explanation in the full draft
[iv] Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence September 6, 2016, produced by Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center.  Principal authors, Hedy Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, and Robert Balfanz, John Hopkins University.  (
[v] My findings from studying the report and its map of Colorado and districts.
[vi] "Securing Equal Educational Opportunity"
TO- Report to the President and Secretary of Education
FROM - U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights
The CRDC “is a survey of all public schools and school districts in the United States. The CRDC measures student access to courses, programs, instructional and other staff, and resources — as well as school climate factors, such as student discipline and bullying and harassment — that impact education equity and opportunity for students.”
Much else was explored in this report.  I appreciate why the civil rights complaints to the Education Department—“ranging from teacher and staffing inequities to … racial disparities in school discipline policies”—were given greater emphasis than the issues of absences and attendance.  But this former teacher and coach latches on to what he experienced and understands. Participation in discussion, a fundamental part of any English class I taught, is nil on the days a student is absent. I often felt I had more clout as a coach—miss a practice and you don’t start or don’t play—than I did as a teacher.