How to Get Kids to Class

ARLINGTON, Va. – FOR the 16 million American children living below the federal poverty line, the start of a new school year should be reason to celebrate. Summer is no vacation when your parents are working multiple jobs or looking for one. Many kids are left to fend for themselves in neighborhoods full of gangs, drugs and despair. Given the hardships at home, poor kids might be expected to have the best attendance records, if only for the promise of a hot meal and an orderly classroom.

But it doesn’t usually work out that way. According to the education researchers Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes at Johns Hopkins, children living in poverty are by far the most likely to be chronically absent from school (which is generally defined as missing at least 10 percent of class days each year).

Amazingly, the federal government does not track absenteeism, but the state numbers are alarming. In Maryland, for example, 31 percent of high school students eligible for the federal lunch program had been chronically absent; for students above the income threshold, the figure was 12 percent.

Thanks to groundbreaking research compiled by Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the director at Attendance Works, we have ample proof that everything else being equal, chronically absent students have lower G.P.A.s, lower test scores and lower graduation rates than their peers who attend class regularly.

The pattern often starts early. Last year in New Mexico, a third-grade teacher contacted the local affiliate of Communities in Schools, the national organization that I run, for help with a student who had 25 absences in just the first semester. After several home visits, we found that 10 people were living in her two-bedroom apartment, including the student’s mother, who had untreated mental health issues. The little girl often got lost in the shuffle, with no clean clothes to wear and no one to track her progress. Nor was there anything like a quiet place to do homework.

Embarrassment and peer pressure turned out to be the most immediate problem. By buying new clothes to replace the girl’s smelly old ones, we were able to help her fit in and get her to school more often. We found additional community resources for both the third grader and her family, including a mentorship group, a housing charity and mental health experts for her mother. As her home life stabilized over the second semester, the absences all but stopped, and at the end of the year she moved up with her class.

Her situation is common, but there are nowhere near enough happy endings. That’s because policy makers usually treat dropout rates and chronic absenteeism as “school” problems, while issues like housing and mental health are “social” problems with a different set of solutions.

To bridge this divide, our community school model seeks to bring a site coordinator, with training in education or social work, onto the administrative team of every school with a large number of poor kids. That person would be charged with identifying at-risk students and matching them up with services that are available both in the school and the community.

This approach is effective and affordable: at Communities in Schools, which operates in 26 states and the District of Columbia, 75 percent of the students whose cases we manage show improved attendance. We provide our services at an average cost of $189 per student per year, a cost that is shared among government agencies and community partners to minimize the impact on school budgets.

It’s relatively easy to find these at-risk students. That’s because poverty is not evenly distributed; it is increasingly concentrated in specific neighborhoods. According to 2012 census estimates, 7.9 million children live in neighborhoods where at least 30 percent of residents are poor.

Chronic absenteeism tends to follow the same pattern. In Florida, for instance, 15 percent of public schools are home (or not home) to 52 percent of chronically absent students. This grotesque fact paradoxically makes it easier for us to focus our resources: We can effectively reach the most at-risk students with minimal waste or overlap. Politicians of all stripes are beginning to recognize the potential of this approach. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, a Democrat, plans to open 40 community schools at a cost of $52 million, while in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has announced a major expansion of a program that puts workers from the state’s Department of Human Services inside struggling public schools.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel to solve this problem. Child Trends, an independent research institute, recently conducted a nationwide study to identify the most effective strategies for school-based provision of social services. Just 1.5 million kids are receiving these services. The number should be much higher.

The key is to put dedicated social-service specialists in every low-performing, high-poverty school, whether they are employed by the school district or another organization. This specialist must be trained in the delivery of community services, with continued funding contingent on improvement in indicators like attendance and dropout rates.

Putting social workers in schools is a low-cost way of avoiding bigger problems down the road, analogous to having a social worker in a hospital emergency room. It’s a common-sense solution that will still require a measure of political courage, something that all too often has itself been chronically absent.

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