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April 18, 2019

Manatee County Educators Focus on Absenteeism

Leaders from the district’s 25 Title I schools say there are a bevy of reasons kids miss school regularly.

A table surrounded by teachers from Manatee County’s Samoset Elementary School rattled off a list of reasons kids miss school: Rain, long commutes, dirty uniforms.

Around the room at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, tables of Title I school administrators and teachers nodded in agreement as they spoke about the frustrating hurdles that so often kept kids from school. One teacher mentioned a student who had missed more than 50 days since December, and others talked about how a half-day would ensure roughly 100 kids absent in one day. No one seemed surprised.

Tawanda Means, an attendance specialist at Samoset Elementary, said bullies at the bus stop were just one more factor keeping kids from school.

“The things that go on at the bus stop, in the community — parents are fearful,” Means said.

The educators were gathered for Manatee School District’s Title I conference, dedicated to addressing the specific troubles that make educating children from lower-income families and neighborhoods a challenge. Tuesday’s keynote topic was absenteeism.

“It takes an army of people, and at your school, you are that army,” said Elena Garcia, the district’s director of federal funding.

Hedy Chang, a national expert on school attendance issues and executive director of Attendance Works, delivered a talk on why school leaders need to make a “huge paradigm shift” in the way they think about absenteeism — from a punitive obsession with unexcused absences to looking at all the time spent outside of class and working closely with families and communities to remove hurdles.

Chang called three volunteers to the front of the room to help demonstrate how children start schools at varying levels of readiness, depending on their life circumstances. One volunteer, representing a child who attended a high-quality preschool, took eight steps forward, while another volunteer took eight steps backward, representing a child who comes from a tumultuous home life and does not have any schooling prior to kindergarten.

“Attendance matters the most if you are the least ready,” Chang said.

Manatee has already addressed absenteeism using Title I funding. In 2015, the school hired “Graduation Enhancement Technicians” (known as GETs) to focus specifically on the subset of kids who miss school on a regular basis.

Means, a GET at Samoset, said she tries to tackle the issue from before the school year begins. Each July, Means reviews the list of children who were chronically absent the prior year. She will visit those children at home and make sure they have backpacks, school supplies and will ensure the parents know the importance of attending school daily.

“I communicate with the parents. A lot are single-parent homes. Mom goes to work at 8 and the kid has to go out to the bus stop,” Means said.

Means said one challenge at Samoset is that the school is surrounded by an industrial area, and many children come from outside the Samoset zone because their parents work nearby. Those students do not receive bus transportation from the district, so if a parent is sick, a car breaks down or a parent’s job gets moved to a different area, the family may not have any way to get their child across the county to school.

Elementary-age children are especially likely to miss school, Chang said, and as classrooms have become more interactive, it is harder to make up missed work. She encouraged the room of educators to know that they were one step ahead of the issue, but she urged them to keep up the fight.

“You have so many of the key ingredients we know can make a difference,” she said. ”… This only happens in cities with local champions.”

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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