Congratulations to the School District of Manatee County for their commitment to the success of all our students. The recent decision to hire 25 graduation enhancement technicians puts Manatee County at the forefront in addressing a serious national challenge: national assessments show two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders are not reading proficiently.
Tackling chronic absence is one of the key solution areas of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Common sense and research suggest that being in school consistently is important to ensure children gain a strong foundation for learning, and that will be emphasized as part of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading – a community-wide effort in Manatee and Sarasota counties to ensure all children read on grade level by the end of third grade.
In the long term, reducing absenteeism is a simple, cost-effective, but often overlooked strategy for improving academic performance. Starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, chronic absence—missing 10 percent of the academic year—can leave third graders unable to read proficiently, sixth graders struggling with coursework and high school students off track for graduation.
Though this challenge is not unique to any single area of our communities, chronic absence is especially problematic among students living in low-income areas who are most likely to have poor attendance over multiple years and least likely to have the resources to make up for the lost time in the classroom. In some communities, chronic absence affects more than one out of four children. In Manatee and Sarasota counties, 2,800 children have been identified as chronically absent – missing more than 10 percent of the school year.
Many factors can contribute to student absenteeism. Two leading health causes are asthma and the most common chronic childhood illness — tooth decay. In low-income communities, challenges are more likely to lead to increased absenteeism. Lack of access to medical care, unhealthy environments, drug and alcohol use, transportation problems, homelessness, and differing community attitudes toward education are among the conditions often associated with a child’s frequent absence from school.
The graduation enhancement technicians in Manatee County will work with school guidance counselors and social workers by using data to identify students at risk, collaborate with social workers and teachers, conduct home visits, mentor students and implement individual intervention strategies at 25 schools, including 19 Title I schools. Title I schools are campuses where at least 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of working families striving for financial stability and economic opportunity. These technicians will also work with Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading leaders to ensure alignment with community-wide goals and strategies.
According to Attendance Works, a national initiative that promotes better policy and practice around school attendance, national data shows that students with higher absenteeism rates have lower scores on national standardized tests, which confirms the connection between school attendance and student achievement.
The good news is poor attendance can be turned around when policies and practices encourage schools and communities to partner with students and their families to monitor their data and implement promising and proven practices.
The placement of the graduation enhancement technicians in Manatee County Schools is a bold and welcome step in addressing the very real needs of our community.