Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 08 2012

Chronic Absences

I have three students who have missed 11, 11, and 13 days of school each. This is 14-17% of the school year.

Situation #1: Kid is incredibly smart, would probably be making all As if he were here everyday. He misses school for a bunch of reasons (meaning that his mom tells me different reasons every time I ask): his little brother is sick a lot, or his family is going to Albuquerque and is leaving on Friday morning and staying through Monday. As it is, he is sharp enough that even when he misses a lot of time, he can usually catch up. He’s got almost proficient grades, and he’s doing pretty well. At the same time, it’s selling him short because he could be at the top of his class, getting enrichment and extra work and moving into advanced math, if he were only there.

Situation #2: Kid is a totally average student, and would probably be high-average if she were there every day. She misses school because her little sister has a moderate medical problem, and has a lot of appointments. In theory, my kiddo has to miss school too because no one will be home when she gets off the bus, but I also know she lives with her mom and grandma, so actually grandma’s always home. Who knows. As it is, she has swiss cheese knowledge, because she has these giant gaps  from when she misses school. Her reading is low because she doesn’t get enough practice time. Her spelling is low because she’s missed so much phonics time. Her math is low because she only learned half the process for most things. At the same time, she’s not truly a low student, so usually her scores hover her just above the level where she would get intervention and serious support. This is the worst, because she never really gets the support to recover any of those missed skills, she just keeps on keeping on, trying her best and never quite making it.

Situation #3: It is unclear where this kid would be, even if she were there every day. I have a hunch she’d be low-average. She has some short-term memory issues, but is otherwise totally able to learn most anything if she is paying attention and focusing. The problem is, she doesn’t really expect, nor do her parents, that she actually has to do either of those things. When I ask why she didn’t do her homework, she says she forgot, or she was working so hard on something else (i.e. drawing butterflies) and then it was bedtime, or else she did do her homework but then she lost it. When I ask her parents and try to get them on board with making sure homework and reading gets done, they laugh, “Oh, that’s just her. She’s the baby, so maybe we let her get away with things. She just does her own thing.” Except when she can’t just “do her own thing,” because her own thing is butterflies and my own thing is fractions, she doesn’t get why she can’t do butterflies.

Consequently, this kid is one of my lowest students. Her phonics are improving in my intervention group, but she misses so many days, or is late so often and misses intervention time, that they aren’t improving nearly as fast as everyone else’s in that group. Math is a disaster, partially because she really struggles in math. But it’s also that she has missed so many days that there’s no way to catch her up on both the stuff she missed yesterday and the stuff she missed in second grade, because she wasn’t there then either. Many times I plan specific intervention activities just for her to work on something she has a hard time with, and then she’s not there. Add this to the inattentive, spacey problems and it’s a disaster.

Case in point: two days ago we were finding fractions of a number (i.e. what is 2/5 of 30?). She asks to use the restroom during my introduction and examples, so I say no. She does well with the examples, mostly on-task with some reminders, and is about to move to the back carpet to start her independent practice when she asks for the restroom again. I say OK now, and she goes. Fifteen minutes later I move from where I’ve been working with my advanced group to check in with my independent practicers, and she’s only on the first problem, while everyone else is on the third or fourth.

Me: “What happened? Did it get confusing?”

Her: “Well, no. But I went to the restroom and when I came back I went to my desk because my notebook was there. But I kind of forgot what I was supposed to be doing, so I just stayed there for a while. After a while I remembered I was supposed to be back here working on these, so then I came over here.”

Oh. I see. For fifteen minutes you sat at your desk, no doubt drawing butterflies, NOT NOTICING that your whole math group was back here doing problems. You didn’t ask one of the many, many people, students and me, who could have told you what to do. You just…sat there for a while. And so now you’ve accomplished almost nothing, and it’s the end of math block and you don’t know how to do this totally, and you’re not going to be here tomorrow to practice this because you’re going to be out. Again.

It’s half hilarious and all frustrating. But then you start to think about it and it’s depressing because out of the three of these kids, only one gets to graduate from high school, because you have to pass the state test to get a diploma and the way things are, neither of these girls is going to get there. I’m trying to figure out what to do, like moving Situation #2 into my intervention group for reading even though she started the year higher than them, because right now she’s pretty much on a par with my lowest kids. I’m trying to schedule afterschool sessions, lunchtime tutoring, before-school extra help. I’m talking to parents, over and over, trying to figure out a solution. But there’s not a lot I can do for a student if they simply aren’t there.

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