The Children's Institute was excited to meet last week, along with some of our partners, with leaders from the Oregon Department of Education to encourage them to release more detailed data on students who are chronically absent – those who miss 10 percent or more of school days. We're working with a wide range of policymakers, educators, students, families and others who are trying to tackle the problem, and we believe that having an accurate understanding of the problem will help address it.
That's why we appreciate the Department of Education leaders' commitment at the meeting to annually release detailed information on chronic absence – by school district, school and by some student subgroups – starting next year.
In the meantime, I was reminded last week that Oregon is not the only place in the country working to address chronic absence. Other states and organizations are working alongside us to find creative solutions, and much can be learned from some of these other extraordinary efforts.
I learned about these initiatives last week in Washington, D.C., where I was privileged to represent the Children's Institute as part of a work group on chronic absence in the United States convened by the National Collaborative on Education and Health. The meeting brought together some of the nation's best thinkers on the subject to lay the groundwork for solutions around chronic absence. Nationwide, between 5 million and 7.5 million children are chronically absent from school every year.
In particular, one New York City effort to address the problem has seen some especially promising results. In the summer of 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his city's Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement. It was the first effort of its kind in New York, and it pulled together more than a dozen city agencies and private partners to help tackle the problem of chronic absence. At the time, one out of five New York City students were chronically absent – over 200,000 students in the metropolitan area.
The program was multi-faceted, and I recognized in it the same basic components that I've seen at work in schools and districts across Oregon that are beating the odds. Working with The Children's Aid Society, a New York charity, the governor's office pulled in community partners, including the housing authority, the health department, homeless services, the New York City Police Department, and youth development agencies. They implemented school-wide strategies, weekly attendance meetings, connected families to community resources and, critically, set up a program called Success Mentors.
Success Mentors are caring adults who were matched with students who have a history of chronic absence. These adults can be teachers, guidance counselors, school aides, custodians or security guards. Their credentials are less important than their emotional and physical capacity to connect with these kids and encourage them to get to school.
The bottom line: the schools working with this task force significantly reduced chronic absence. All three cohorts of task force schools consistently outperformed comparison schools, and positive impacts were consistent across elementary, middle, and high schools. Most importantly, impacts were most significant for students living in high poverty and temporary housing – the population that we know is most likely to be chronically absent and that stands to gain the most from being in school.
I was impressed with this effort for many reasons, but chief among them was that the people working on the initiative were able to focus on practical solutions that were achievable. Chronic absence is a complex problem with many contributing causes. It will not be solved in a day. But if the architects of education and health policy can focus on scaling up solutions like these, we'll be on our way to keeping more kids in school from a very early age and setting them on a path to success – from New York City to rural Oregon.