DES MOINES — Iowa schools work to limit truancy because it helps improve results, but some question whether more could be done to reduce chronic absences.
The Des Moines Register reports there are growing concerns about chronic absenteeism because it can have a significant impact on students. Iowa, like most states, relies on average daily attendance figures.
Frequent absenteeism isn't unusual in Iowa. Nearly one in five high school students in Des Moines missed at least 18 days last year. That's equal to 10 percent of the school year.
And in all grades, about 10 percent of Des Moines students missed at least 18 days.
The problem is most prevalent at high-poverty schools. Besides Des Moines, high rates of absenteeism were also recorded in Waterloo, where 17 percent of all students missed significant class time, and in Council Bluffs, where 16 percent of the students were chronically absent.
Missing significant amounts of class time at any grade can jeopardize goals such as going to college, said Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
For example, one 2011 study showed that students who miss more than 10 percent of kindergarten struggled to read well by the end of the third grade.
Jamie Gilley, with the Des Moines district, said schools are using a computer program to track attendance and alert teachers when there is a concern, but the community can play a major role.
“Attendance is a community matter,” Gilley said. “We know that when kids drop out, that costs the taxpayer about $1 million in revenue a year, whether it be what we're paying for (in social services) or from what we're losing in the tax base.”
A group of Iowa United Way chapters plans to ask state lawmakers to require school districts to track chronic absences by school.
Kate Bennett, who works for the Des Moines-based United Way of Central Iowa, said having that information would help communities develop solutions.
“Right now the state is only looking at average daily attendance, and we'd like to see our chronic absence numbers really elevated in that conversation,” Bennett said. “Until we know what the numbers are, it's hard to change them.”
Findley Elementary School in Des Moines has had success in reducing absences by working with parents and stressing the importance of regular attendance.
“If we catch them early and establish positive attendance habits early on, it has such a positive effect in middle school and high school,” Findley Principal Tara Owen said.
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