JCPS increasingly is trying to understand and address family and societal problems that are keeping kids from coming to school, in part because absenteeism hampers academic achievement — but also because it costs the district millions of dollars in lost state funds. The importance of those dollars is rising as school operating costs increase and revenues don’t keep up.
School districts in Kentucky get state funds based on average daily attendance, and for every percentage point decline in ADA, Jefferson County Public Schools lose $3.5 million. JCPS officials referenced absenteeism’s financial impact on the district at the Jan. 9 school board meeting. The board is in the early stages of preparing a budget for next year.
So far this year, the district’s ADA is 93.6 percent, meaning JCPS, with full attendance, could get from the state another $22.4 million each year. But perfect attendance for the entire district for a full year is unrealistic, school officials said.
Brent Lynch, the district’s director of pupil personnel, said that JCPS has established a target of 96 percent, which means that at 93.6 percent, the school is losing out on $8.4 million a year.
“It’s a significant piece,” Lynch told Insider.
That’s true especially because the district’s cost — for teachers, buses and utilities — does not shrink if a student stays away from class.
Local schools also incur millions of dollars in indirect costs to identify — and rectify — frequently absent students’ academic shortfalls and to diagnose and, if possible, eliminate the conditions that contribute to student absences.
The absenteeism implications don’t stop there: Kids who often miss school tend to have lower graduation rates, which means communities — that already are paying for the kids’ instruction and academic rehab — lose more money on the students’ lost earnings potential — or incur costs related to welfare or even prison.
The state has submitted a plan under which schools are required to track absenteeism, among other things, to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the No Child Left Behind law.
Empathy vs. punishment
JCPS tracks excused and unexcused absences — though the importance of the differentiation is diminishing as JCPS wants to make sure that kids are in school — period — and that if they miss school, they miss as little instructional time as possible.
When Lynch became director of pupil personnel a couple of years ago, the district decided to pay less attention to whether student absences were excused and more on chronic absenteeism: students who miss at least 10 percent of instructional time. A kindergartener who misses 10 percent of instructional time is less likely to read by the third grade, which is an important predictor for graduating, Lynch said.
At the same time, the district changed the way it intervenes from a more punitive approach to a more supportive, empathetic approach, getting help from, among others, Attendance Works, to positively engage families and help them overcome whatever challenges keep their children out of school.
“What we’ve been doing in the past hasn’t worked,” he said.
To reduce absenteeism, each of the district’s schools has a dedicated a team, which differs from school to school but may include teachers, the counselor and the principal. Teams get help from district staff, including 15 certified school social workers who each handle up to seven elementary schools.
After six absences, JCPS typically refers cases to a social worker. After nine missed days, school officials may contact the family by phone or even visit the home. The district’s efforts escalate from there and can involve meetings that include representatives from state and local social services agencies to formulate a preventative plan. As a last resort, the district may involve the courts.
Lynch said that solving absenteeism is difficult because many contributing conditions — joblessness, poverty, health — are difficult for the district to treat or even diagnose.
Families sometimes are reluctant to share what ails them, which can require a bit of detective work, said Anne Perryman, a JCPS social worker.
The underlying issues that may keep a student away from school differ from student to student and family to family, she said, and can include mental and physical health challenges of a caregiver, domestic violence, bullying, lack of transportation, homelessness — or all of the above.
If students stay with a different family member every few days, transportation can certainly be a challenge, Perryman said. In other cases, a guardian may work a late shift and oversleep when the kids have to get up.
“Our job,” Lynch said, “is to find those barriers … and link those families up to services.”
JCPS tries to instill in kids and adults early on that attendance matters. Perryman said that at kindergarten orientation events, JCPS leaders will talk to parents about the importance of establishing a routine, including a steady bed time. Kids sometimes are paired with attendance buddies, who can check on them, give them a “high five” when they come to school and tell them, “We missed you,” after absences.
Perryman often visits families in the home if she can’t reach them by mail or phone, but families can react with apprehension to a visit from a government official. However, home visits also can make families feel more comfortable than being summoned to the school, she said, and initial misgivings on the parents’ part often dissipate once they understand the social workers’ intentions.
Early intervention has always been a focus for tackling absenteeism, but is receiving more attention now because more people understand the connections between attendance and scholastic performance, Perryman said. In addition, the level of instruction in the early academic years has progressed to the point that missing time in kindergarten robs children of a good base for academics and social interaction.
The turnaround story of a Louisville girl reflects the complex family dynamics that keep some kids out of school with alarming frequency, but it also shows some inroads the district has made with its more empathetic approach.
Nevaeh Thornton, 9, struggled last year to attend school regularly, in part because of family problems, including her mother’s chemical dependency. The girl missed school so often that JCPS officials contacted her father and referred the case to a district-employed specialist.
Alethea Victor, a school social worker who been with the district since 2006, told Insider that once Nevaeh had six unexcused absences, the school referred the case to her, and she mailed a truancy letter to the father, Kenneth Thornton.
The father, 68, is a retired butcher who supplements his income by working for a janitorial service. He takes care of Nevaeh and two siblings, Kaliyah, 3, and Kenneth Jr., 2, by himself. The mother used to help but is undergoing treatment.
Changes in the family composition helped improve Nevaeh’s attendance, Thornton said, but so did the girl herself.
She came home one day and told him that she wanted to come to school more regularly because she didn’t want to fall further behind, he said. She even volunteered to stay after school three times a week to catch up.
“This year,” he said, “oh man, she’s booming.”
The father said that the school officials’ intervention helped, too, in part because it felt like they were trying to help and understand the challenges he faces as a single parent.
“I really appreciated that,” he said. “It showed me that they care.”
Victor said the father was always pleasant and seemed eager to make sure that his daughter no longer missed any instructional time.
“She’s had perfect attendance this year, which is huge,” Victor said.
The share of JCPS students who missed at least 10 percent of their instructional time fell — for the first time in at least three years — to 18.1 percent in the 2016/17 school year. That was down fractionally from the year before — though still nearly 2 percentage points higher than in the 2013/14 school year.
While the number of chronically absent students has flattened, the number of students who miss school and the number of lost instructional hours still is increasing, though Lynch said the figures are skewed by the impact of a state law that changed when students are counted as absent: Between 2013/14 and 2016/17 school years, total absences and total instruction time lost increased by 16 percent at JCPS, while total enrollment rose less than 1 percent. Total instructional time lost reached nearly 6.5 million hours in 2016/17, up nearly 900,000 hours from three years earlier.
Lynch said those numbers are inflated because state law now counts absences of students older than 16. Previously only absences of students 18 and older were included. Without that change, Lynch said, student absences at JCPS have been fairly steady in the last few years.
Nationwide, more than 6.8 million students, or 14 percent, miss at least 15 school days per year, according to the U.S Department of Education. Among high school students, the share is 19 percent, with higher rates among minorities.
Absenteeism affects students of all backgrounds, according to the Education Commission for the States, but “Chronic absenteeism is most prevalent among the youngest and oldest students, particularly those who already face significant academic challenges, including students living in poverty, students with disabilities, students of color, students who are mobile and students who are involved in the juvenile justice system.
“These student groups are often targeted with efforts to close the achievement gap, but unless such students are present and engaged, the impact of those efforts will likely be diminished,” the commission said.
Perryman said it would be great if JCPS could get the whole community involved in a campaign about the importance of school attendance. She envisions something similar to the Strive for less than 5 effort in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Lynch said that the district’s efforts, now in their third year, are starting to pay dividends.
If things continue the way they have, he said, “We can … change the tide of things a little bit.”
Thornton, meanwhile, encouraged other parents to communicate with school officials and to overcome their apprehensions about sharing family challenges that may keep kids away from school.
Nevaeh has told him that she wants to work in the medical field because she likes helping people — though she also loves dancing. When she turns 10, she plans to join an after-school performance group.
“She’s on a good track,” the father said.