“‘I can’t read.’”
That admission - by a Denfeld High School student who wasn’t going to class because he didn’t have the reading skills to do the work - is one reason why he ended up in a county truancy program this year.
The student was going to school but not entering the classroom, said Amy Lukasavitz, an assistant St. Louis County attorney who is part of the county’s Student Attendance Review Board.
Admitting why “was hard for him to say,” Lukasavitz said.
Reading deficiency, troubled lives and poverty, are some of the factors driving high rates of chronic absenteeism in Duluth public schools.
Chronic absenteeism is defined by the state as missing 10 percent or more of a school year, or about two days a month, excused or unexcused. A national problem, it’s a major contributor to achievement gaps and low graduation rates.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, about one in seven of the nation’s students missed 15 or more days in 2014. Frequent absenteeism at the preschool, kindergarten and first-grade levels inhibits students’ ability to learn to read by third grade, research shows. And that can lead to a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school.
Minnesota Department of Education data from 2016 show the Duluth district’s 13 traditional schools have a 15 percent rate of chronic absenteeism. But a deeper look shows higher numbers in some schools and within some groups of students.
At Myers-Wilkins Elementary, about one in three students are chronically absent. Denfeld is close to that.
And although black students make up less than 10 percent of district enrollment, 40 percent are chronically absent. Native American students, who make up less than 5 percent of enrollment, miss nearly as much school as black students. Students who receive special education and students who take part in the free and reduced price lunch program also show high rates. These are the same groups of Duluth students who have low graduation rates and do poorly on standardized tests.
Missing a couple of days a month could mean half a letter grade, perhaps a whole letter grade, said Denfeld assistant principal Jim Erickson.
Students miss important material meant to build on past material, he said. “It’s lost opportunity.”
Chronic absenteeism is seen throughout the city in elementary, middle and high schools, and with all types of students. All but two Duluth district schools - Lakewood and Homecroft elementaries - had high rates of absenteeism in two or more student groups.
Missing out on important language arts instruction early on leads to problems as kids move through school, said Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of the advocacy group Attendance Works.
Those problems accelerate in middle and high school, as skills build upon each other.
“Try passing algebra if you missed four days the first month of school,” she said.
Under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, schools must collect and report data on chronic absenteeism. They will also be held accountable for it in Minnesota.
Because ESSA says states need to add a non-academic success indicator, chronic absenteeism will be considered along with academic growth, graduation rates and test scores as accountability measures. That will start with the 2018-19 school year.Why?
Experts point to four main reasons most chronic absenteeism falls under:
- Missing school for trips or “mental health” days, for example, because parents assume a few days won’t affect learning
- Barriers, including health issues or those related to poverty or safety
- Aversion to school or its social climate, stemming from bullying or a disability
- A feeling of disconnection from school, whether it’s kids not seeing themselves in the curriculum, or that education isn’t part of their future
Schools should use their data to figure out where and why they have high numbers and use that to work to reduce them, Chang said.
While all schools have a mix of reasons kids miss class, some Duluth educators notice poverty, mental illness and home life playing a large role. That’s especially true in schools where the majority of kids take part in the free and reduced price lunch program, an indicator of poverty, or have higher numbers of students of color, who in Minnesota disproportionately live in poverty.
“When you have a really high at-risk population, there is a cycle that goes with that,” said Marcia Nelson, an assistant principal at Denfeld, where more than half of its students are considered low-income.
Some students are dealing with hunger, untreated health issues or a lack of clean clothes. Some work until late at night and struggle to get up for school. Parents might be gone, sick or in jail, in abusive relationships or fighting addiction. Some parents work night shifts, leaving children on their own in the morning, or can’t afford child care, meaning older siblings must care for younger siblings while school is in session.
“The best-case scenario is the parents are there, there is food on the table, they are on a schedule, they get enough sleep, they can get up in the morning and have breakfast, and that started when they were little: a pattern that says school is the most important thing and this is my job,” Nelson said. “We have so many kids who don’t view school that way because there are too many other things going on.”
Through April, the district enrolled 400 homeless students, 50 of whom are classified as unaccompanied youth, meaning they are 14 or older and are no longer living with their parents because the situation wasn’t safe or the parents aren’t in the picture.
“Often, families are in crisis mode, and their main priority is trying to get their needs met for the day,” said Katie Danielson, the district’s Families in Transition coordinator.
Kids aren’t necessarily missing school because they or their parents don’t value education, she said. “They are trying to survive.”
Other kids, like the Denfeld student who said he could not read, might have an undiagnosed learning disability. Missing school compounds the problem, because by not being in class, kids can’t get assessed to receive proper help.
The more school a student misses and the further behind they fall, the easier it is to stay away from the classroom.
“Then it’s like, ‘if I can’t graduate, what difference does it make?’ There is a hopelessness in there,” Nelson said.
Anxiety plays a huge role, and can stem from childhood trauma or trauma related to parents that invades a child’s thoughts, impacting the ability to focus at school, said Jacob Hintsala, assistant principal of Lincoln Park Middle School.
“Everyone likes to see the rates drop,” he said, but there isn’t enough mental health care in the region to serve everyone who needs it to adequately address the problem.
It plays into truancy and behavior problems, and it needs to be seen as a community issue, he said.
“We can’t look at it just as a school problem or a west side/east side problem,” Hintsala said.
Native American students, who have the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country, are missing school for many of the same reasons as any student, including bullying and substance abuse, said Evie Campbell, an assistant professor in the social work department at the University of Minnesota Duluth, whose research has focused on Native Americans and public schools.
But there is a cultural element related to school climate, she said. If students don’t see themselves reflected in curriculum or feel as if staff care about them, they might lose interest in learning.
Campbell, enrolled with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, cited a recent state student survey that showed only 78 percent of Native American students thought teachers cared about them personally, while a much higher percentage thought teachers cared about students in general.
Historical trauma and distrust stemming from the federal government’s past practice of sending Native Americans to boarding school also plays a role in today’s absenteeism rates, she said.‘A broken family’
One Denfeld junior missed several days of school last year, jeopardizing her course credits. It was about the usual teen stuff, she said, but also intense grief and stress. Drug addiction had landed her mother in prison, and her stepfather had died a few years earlier. She felt a responsibility to help care for her three younger sisters whose parents were no longer there, she said.
The student, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of her story, watched her grades plummet while she was consumed by her family’s situation. With help from a school therapist, assistant principal Nelson and her father, she was able to get back on track, and today has a 3.8 GPA, with plans to attend college to become a nurse.
Growing up, she said, she had a “broken family.” She was exposed to her mother’s drug use and wasn’t cared for properly when she was a small child.
“You’d be surprised how many Denfeld kids go through that,” she said.
Some kids are lost, smoking pot and partying, not understanding the importance of school, she said.
But others “go home to getting beaten. Or they are making sure their mom doesn’t overdose. Making sure their little sisters get on the bus in the morning,” she said. “I’m not the worst story out there, and I feel like one of the lucky ones to grow from it.”