BILLINGS – On the first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 26, thousands of children will pour through the doors of Billings Public Schools.
But some kids won’t. They’ll miss the first day of school, or maybe even the first week. That can set the tone for the rest of their lives.
Mary Anderson is a kindergarten teacher at Newman Elementary.
“We have a little boy and his brother that would get themselves up and get ready for the bus on their own,” she said. “But if they missed the bus, they would stay home.”
Billings community leaders and school officials are aiming to head off attendance problems before they start – and before they snowball. Teachers and administrators from Newman, School District 2 officials and United Way volunteers canvassed the neighborhoods around Newman with information about the importance of attendance and the impending first day of school Tuesday afternoon.
Students who miss two or more days of school in the first month are more likely to be chronically absent throughout the year. Those who miss school frequently during kindergarten and first grade often never kick the habit.
In SD2, students technically aren’t allowed to miss more than 10 days of school per semester, according to the Student/Parent Handbook. But some students miss dozens of days. Anderson said that some students missed 60 days last year.
“It’s impossible” to catch them up, she said.
“For our youngest kids, it’s typically not the kid’s fault,” said Newman Principal Travis Niemeyer. “You can’t blame a first-grader for not coming to school.”
Often, parents think it’s fine if students miss a few days – but a few can turn into a few more, then a few more, and all the while students are missing crucial instructional time.
“People have an idea that if you miss 18 days, that’s 10 percent – that’s not too bad,” Niemeyer said.
In Billings public schools, each grade level of students will lose about 200 students who drop out between ninth and 12th grade.
The majority of those students will miss at least one week of school in every month, on average, by the time they drop out. Of those who miss more than 10 percent of school days in sixth grade, about half end up dropping out.
But really, problems can stretch back to day one, in kindergarten. A 2011 study in California found that only 17 percent of students who were chronically absent during their first two years of school were able to read at grade level by third grade – a strong indicator of future academic success. About 64 percent of students who missed less than five percent of school days hit the reading benchmark.
“You just never get that time back,” Niemeyer said.
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Graduation Matters is a group of community leaders that aims to bring cohort graduation rates up to 91 percent by 2018, up from 82.5 percent in 2013. The group’s research led them to realize that a bottom-up approach to attendance is critical to student success.
“If we don’t give them a chance to grow up and become productive citizens, then we’re selling ourselves short,” said Bill Underriner, the chief executive officer of Underriner Motors. “I, as a businessman, look at this as ‘these are the future people I expect to employ in my business.’ ”
Problems that bring down graduation rates, dimming job prospects for young adults throughout their lives, are “a community problem,” he said.
That’s what led to Tuesday’s awareness effort. The group is setting the bar high and aiming to get every kid to attend every day during the first month of school.
Working with parents is more effective than trying to impose punitive measures on them after kids miss school and academic damage has already been done, Niemeyer said.
“You gotta reach out to them and try to build a relationship,” he said.
While parents are ultimately responsible for getting young children to school, national research shows that circumstances matter; children raised in low-income families are four times more likely to be chronically absent than kids from middle-income families.
If parents are working multiple jobs, especially with nighttime hours, “to get up at 7 o’clock and get the kids ready to go to school. … I don’t know if I could do it,” Niemeyer said.
Even missing half-days can set kids back. Catching up means that teachers have to try to get absent students back on track while managing the rest of their class.
“It’s that disruption, too, when they do arrive,” said Danielle Martinson, another kindergarten teacher at Newman.
Sometimes students miss school for long-term health issues, but if parents communicate with teachers, students have more options for recovering lost learning.
“We will work with those kids,” Niemeyer said.
The district has a lengthy process attempting to contact parents and have them meet with school officials before pursuing truancy citations, but if other options fail, parents can get cited for their children’s absences.
For the youngest students, that’s not always an option; Montana law only requires that students attend school by age 7.
Another tactic schools use is to make class as engaging as possible.
“We try to amp up our curriculum and make kids want to come,” Niemeyer said. Combined with efforts like Tuesday’s canvassing, “we’re hoping to get them thinking school and get them ready to go.”