Student attendance always has been important, but now it matters even more to Tennessee schools.

Ten percent of a school’s grade under a new accountability system will be based on the percentage of students who are “chronically out of school.”

The figure is based on the number of students who miss at least 18 days — 10 percent of the school year — for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences, as well as suspensions.

With the academic year stretching from early August to late May, two days a month may not sound like much. However, chronically absent students miss a year of instruction by the time they are in high school.

ESSA plan

The “chronically out-of-school” measure is part of Tennessee’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA requires states to have at least one “indicator of school quality” beyond test scores, and Tennessee chose two, the chronically out-of-school measure and students’ early postsecondary opportunities, such as work-based learning programs.

In addition to being 10 percent of the calculation for individual school grades, attendance will be one of six items on which districts are measured.

Starting with data from the current academic year, schools will receive a letter grade and districts will be judged exemplary, advancing, satisfactory, marginal or in need of improvement under the new state accountability system.

Schools and districts can be judged on their percentage of students who are chronically out of school or their improvement in that number from one year to the next.

The state also will be looking not only at the rate for all students, but also for subgroups, including minority students, economically disadvantaged, English learners and students with disabilities.

Students whose families are economically disadvantaged are more likely to be chronically absent than others, according to national research, and that’s evident in the local schools as well.

Although Maryville City Schools has a low percentage of chronically out-of-school students overall, 4.2 percent last year, the figure for economically disadvantaged students was more than twice that, 11.7 percent.

The impact of chronic absenteeism starts early and persists through high school, according to research cited by the Tennessee Education Equity Coalition.

In this state, for example, a student who is chronically absent in kindergarten is less likely to be proficient in English or math in third grade.

Among high school students only 62 percent of freshmen who are chronically absent will earn their diploma on time, compared to 92 percent of students who regularly attend class.

Multiple tactics

Dr. Mike Winstead, director of MCS, said the chronically out-of-school data mostly is a reflection of school climate. Educators need to ensure that schools are safe, they are places that students want to go and that children have positive relationships there.

While it may be impossible to improve the attendance of some students who have chronic medical conditions, educators have proven they can make a difference in attendance.

From the 2015-16 to the 2016-17 school year, for example, Blount County Schools reduced the number of chronically out-of-school students by about 2 percent, according to Crystal Brewer, student information system manager.

Administrators have tackled attendance from multiple angles from class competitions and rewards for perfect attendance to phone calls from teachers and principals.

School districts’ Family Resource Centers work to find solutions for struggling families with issues such as transportation, noted Dr. Brian Bell, director of Alcoa City Schools.

In BCS, Eagleton Middle School revamped its schedule to offer an activity period once a week, and it requires students to have perfect attendance for three weeks to participate.

Diagnosing and managing asthma also can improve attendance, and last year BCS began free screening for fourth-graders, working with the Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Center of Knoxville.

Calling home

Schools also have triggers for calling home. For example, if an elementary student misses two consecutive days at Montvale Elementary School, a teacher will call the family.

One principal said when he called home and a parent said a teenager wouldn’t get out of bed, the principal asked for permission to come to the house, which he did. The student got out of bed and went to school.

School tactics differ by students age. At the elementary level, educators need to work with parents.

“You’ve got to get the parents engaged,” Winstead said, educating them about the importance of students’ being in school.

One way MCS is reaching out to families is by offering homework help in apartment complexes. “The kids and the parents see the teachers in an environment outside the school,” he said, strengthening relationships.

When students reach high school, they feel the impact directly.

On a block schedule, “Students can’t miss many days before they fall behind,” Bell noted. “Once you start tracking credits, students can’t afford to fall behind.”

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