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The Effects of Chronic Absence from School: Maine Forum Seeks Solutions
01/13/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

Research shows that missing a lot of school in kindergarten and first grade can lead to a pattern of chronic absenteeism throughout elementary school and beyond. Students who are chronically absent in the early years are more likely to be suspended later on and score lower on standardized tests than their peers. A day-long forum in Portland this week will focus on ways of boosting elementary school attendance. Jay Field has more.

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Maine Forum to Address Chronic School Absence
Originally Aired: 1/13/2014 5:30 PM

Most of Maine's more than 400 elementary schools have attendance rates that are equal to, or better than, the state average of 94 percent. But policymakers and educators say these big-picture statistics tell only part of the story when it comes to student attendance.

Susan Lieberman is with Spurwink Services, a Portland non-profit that provides mental health and educational services to children, adolescents, adults and families.

"So you could have a 96 percent average daily attedance rate. But you could also have a 7- or 10-percent rate of kids that have missed 18 or more days," Lieberman says.

Lieberman says research shows that this kind of chronic absenteeism can cause the state's youngest students to quickly fall behind peers who show up at school more regularly.

"Good attendance, starting as early as kindergarten and preschool, is critical for students gaining fundamental reading and math skills," she says. "Children who are chronically absent are far less likely to read proficiently at the end of third grade."

For the past year, Lieberman has led an effort to combat chronic absenteeism in Cumberland County, where nearly 1,000 elementary school students in kindergarten through fifth grade have missed more than 10 percent of their school year over the past two years.

Count Me In seeks to cut the number of kids with chronic absenteeism in half by the year 2018. As part of this effort, educators, school administrators, policy makers, counselors, social workers and others will gather in Portland Tuesday for a day long summit on strategies for boosting elementary school attendance.

"This is an attempt to be proactive," says Rachelle Tome, of the Maine Department of Education. "And take a look at the earlier stages of a child's educational career. If students are behind, if students have developed a habit of not attending school on a regular basis, for whatever reason, then that is much more difficult to address by the time they get into high school."

Keynoting the Portland conference will be Hedy Chang, recently honored by the White House for her work directing Attendance Works, a national and state-level initiative combatting chronic absenteeism. There will also be presentations by schools that are having success combating the problem.

They include the East End Community School in Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood. Administrators at East End have extended the school day by 30 minutes and used federal grant money to start a before-school program called Rise and Shine, where students can get extra help in reading and math, take exercise classes, do community service and work on visual and performing arts projects.


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