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Issue: 1231 Date: 3/27/2014
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Discussion: Why Do St. Louis Area Kids Miss School? And What Can Be Done About It?

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        As part of the St. Louis Public Radio project "Accounted For," chronic student absenteeism was the focus of St. Louis on the Air today. When students miss more than 10 percent of a given year of school, they become chronically absent. Millions of kids across America fall into this category, and it is far too often a predictor of future failure on several levels.

        At the top of the hour, education reporter Tim Lloyd introduced the topic and explained the purpose of the "Accounted For" project. For more on the research and effects of chronic absenteeism, read his first story in the series.

        "The real purpose of the project is to look at two simple questions that often have complicated inputs and outputs, which are: why do so many kids miss so much school, and then, of course, what can be done about it?" Lloyd said.

        To start finding these answers, host Don Marsh spoke with research scientist Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University's School of Education, Principal Jamie Jordan of University City's Brittany Woods Middle School and Ruby Jones of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri.

        In his research, Balfanz has found that most chronically absent students fall into three categories:

        Students who can't come due to outside problems or responsibilities.

        Students who won't come because they are being bullied or feel unsafe at school.

        Students who don't come because they don't think anyone notices or cares that they miss school.

        Jordan and Jones appreciated those distinctions because they see them as a way of beginning to identify the unique reasons each child develops a pattern of missing school. Once the reasons are identified, then solutions can begin to be found.

        "As we look at our students and try and figure out what's really happening, there isn't one quick fix," Jones said. "There's not one reason why kids aren't coming to school. It's a variety of different reasons, and we really have to have the resources and the right folks at the table to address each student individually."

        Jones supervises the ABCToday program at Big Brother Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, which stands for Attend school, Behave, and experience Classroom success. The program partners with schools to help their Littles achieve those three goals.

        "School principals have so much going on, and they're charged to really improve and help with the success of so many kids, I think it's helpful to them when an agency comes in and says hey, I can take these kids. I can focus on the kids whom I'm serving ?that just really improves the overall morale at the school, and the attendance of all of the kids, the behavior of all of the kids," Jones said.

        As principal of Brittany Woods Middle School in University City, Jamie Jordan agrees that engaging the help of community agencies is vital. In 2013 she was named the Principal of the Year by the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals. Her school has multiple partnerships with community agencies, including a relationship with Washington University, the Wyman Center and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

        "What I've seen recently in the difference of education in the last ten years is really the role of social workers in the school and how social workers can help tie in to these community relationships," Jordan said.

        "Ruby said it right that most educators and principals and administrators all come in with a background of educating kids and when we really start breaking down chronic absenteeism we have to look at the social issues why, and so that support of the community resources and social workers into the school structure is really important," she added.

        In his research in New York City schools, Balfanz found that having mentors dedicated to encouraging students to attend school made a significant difference in test scores, passing rates and dropout rates.

        "Having someone that's working with a subset of kids on a regular basis, monitoring their attendance, calling them if they're not there saying what can we do to get you in by 10, by 11, we miss you, we want you here, and then trying to figure out what's behind it and then being able to, if it is a serious issue, be able to refer them to the appropriate people who can help, can make a real difference," Balfanz said.

        Brittany Woods has a system in place similar to what Balfanz described, Jordan said, with people analyzing data and matching students with mentors.

        "What's the saddest part is for those kids that don't come, that they feel like they're not noticed if they're not there, because those are the ones that we really need to reach out for and make sure that they're trackable," Jordan said.

        In addition to talking about the need for community partnerships and the ability to connect with social workers, the guests also discussed the ripple effect of behavior problems and classroom disruptions caused by the sporadic attendance of students. When students miss a lot of school, they have difficulty following lessons and are more likely to get frustrated and act out.

        The guests also fielded questions about the role poverty plays in chronic absenteeism, as well as the impact homelessness and being in the foster care system can have.

        The conversation on St. Louis on the Air today introduced the issue and some of the possible solutions, but there is much more discussion to be had. What reasons do you see St. Louis area kids missing school? What do you think can be done to get all kids in school?

        Tell St. Louis Public Radio News how this story or subject resonates with you. Click on the link to share: Accounted for: How can we help all kids get to school?

        St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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