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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Poor reason for children to miss days of school

Michael Brindley

It’s no coincidence that the three elementary schools with the highest numbers of habitually truant students last year were also those with the highest percentage of low-income students.

As Board of Education members heard Monday from a committee charged with addressing the School District’s attendance issue, the question was asked several times: What is the root cause of chronic absenteeism?

The data and the research make it abundantly clear that the answer is poverty. Children living in low-income households are far more likely to miss school on a regular basis than those living in middle- and upper-class households.

According to data presented by the committee at the meeting earlier this week, Ledge Street Elementary School had 109 students who were habitually truant last year, which is defined as having 10 or more unexecused absences in a year. That is nearly a quarter of the school population.

Dr. Crisp and Amherst Street elementary schools, also low-income schools, had 78 and 49 habitually truant students last year. Ledge Street, Dr. Crisp and Amherst Street have more students qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program than other elementary schools in the city.

The eligibility requirements for free lunch for a household of four is an annual income of $28,665. For reduced-cost lunch, eligibility for a household of four is an annual income of $40,793.

On the flip side, at Bicentennial Elementary School, which has the lowest free and reduced lunch eligibility at 9 percent, 18 students were habitually truant last year. That is about 3 percent of the school population.

At households where money is scarce, issues arise that make getting children to school a secondary concern, said Michael Middleton, education professor at the University of New Hampshire. Low-income families have less access to health care, which can prolong illness. Parents may ask their children to stay home and watch younger siblings because they can’t afford to miss work or hire a baby sitter.

“All of these factors, while not directly related to school, affect kids’ abilities to get to school,” Middleton said. “It’s easy to forget that these families and children are dealing with issues that may get in the way sometimes.”

A 2007 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that in all grades, the lower the family income, the higher the absenteeism rates. Using the federal poverty line as a measuring stick, the study concluded “living in a poor family or a low-income family greatly increased the chances of being an at-risk or chronic absentee.”

“Further, while attendance improved for all income groups through the elementary grades, in all grades a greater proportion of poor children were chronic absentees than other income groups,” according to the study.

The study also found that chronic absenteeism in early grades negatively impacted understanding of math and reading. This comes as no surprise to Ledge Street Principal Janet Valeri, where nearly three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“You can have the greatest education in the world, but if they’re not there to receive it, it’s not doing anyone any good,” she said. The most difficult issue for families at Ledge Street is a lack of health care. Kids have come to school infested with lice and have to be sent home, forcing them to miss school, she said.

“They just don’t have the resources that typical middle-class to upper-middle-class families would have,” she said.

Valeri said what schools like hers must do is get families connected with social service agencies to get children the care they need. The school has a relationship with the Dental Connection in Nashua, which gives children living in poverty free dental care. “We’ve had kids come in who need several teeth extracted,” she said.

With kids missing so much school, it has a detrimental effect on their academic performance, thus making it more difficult for the school to make the progress required under No Child Left Behind.

Even when kids are showing up, if they are in pain or are sick, it makes it more difficult to learn, Valeri said. The school does its best to work with parents, educating them about programs that are available but also about the importance of getting their children to school, she said.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, unfortunately, Middleton said. Poverty is a societal issue, and working with parents and educating them is really the best thing they can do to turn the tide, he said.

Punishing students, especially young students, for missing school by suspending them or giving them detention only exacerbates the problem, he said.

“Schools should be working more closely with parents to see what support they need to get their kids to school,” he said.

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.