Chronic absences raise alarms in Snohomish County schools

EVERETT — Nearly one of every seven students attending public schools in Snohomish County is considered a frequent no-show in the classroom.

Missing school is a recipe for falling behind. Younger children are less likely to read at grade level. By high school, regular absences are a sign that a student may not graduate on time, or at all.

New state data sounds the alarm. More than 21,000 students across the county — roughly the equivalent of the entire enrollment of the Edmonds School District — are considered chronically absent.

Schools are testing new strategies to keep kids in class. There are posters and prizes, meetings with parents and newly minted truancy boards. In some local districts, about 10 percent of students frequently are absent. Several have double that rate.

The reasons behind absences are varied, and educators are trying to get a handle on how to help.

The numbers

Statewide, 16.7 percent of students were considered chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year, according to data released by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Snohomish County average is 14.5 percent.

A student is chronically absent if they miss at least 10 percent of school, excused or unexcused. That’s two days a month or 18 a year.

Some of the largest gaps in attendance are between homeless or low-income students and their peers. In most local districts, nearly double the number of low-income students are chronically absent. Homeless students are up to three times more likely to regularly miss school.

Marysville has the second highest rate of absences in the county, behind Index, a district with less than 60 students. More than 2,700 Marysville students — roughly one in five — missed at least a tenth of last school year.

The district saw an increase in absences after the 2014 shootings at Marysville Pilchuck High School that left five students dead. Fear and trauma contribute to absences, said Christine Mertens, truancy department coordinator.

The district also has students from the Tulalip Tribes who miss school for cultural reasons, such as tribal lessons and ceremonies. Tribal liaisons and advocates work with families, said Ray Houser, director of assessment and student services. Statewide, American Indians miss more school than their classmates.

“The best we can do is not dwell on how high we are, but instead focus on the proactive measures we’re taking to get kids in school,” Mertens said.

The Monroe School District has the second lowest rate of absences in the county, behind Northshore and tied with Sultan. About one in 10 students missed at least 18 days last year.

The district does regular reports on who’s missing school, Becca Bill outreach specialist Tomiah Andring said. The Becca bill is the backbone of the state’s truancy laws.

“We contact families as soon as one absence, and we don’t stop,” she said. “It’s all about how we let these families know that we care about the students and we want them in school.”

There are letters, phone calls and occasional home visits. Many families don’t want to share personal struggles. Building trust is essential, Andring said.

The other key is catching absences early. Missing elementary classes makes it hard to keep up later. Falling behind can become another reason students don’t want to go to school.

“I can’t tell you how many seniors we work with who say, ‘I don’t have enough credits, it’s not going to happen for me,’” Andring said. “That’s why we need to catch it earlier.”

The laws

Washington legislators last year made changes to state laws regarding school attendance.

Under the new rules, districts must provide information to parents or guardians, including: benefits of attendance; effects of absences; responsibilities of parents and the district; resources; and consequences of repeated unexcused absences.

The law also requires conferences with families if an elementary student has five or more excused absences a month or 10-plus a year. That can be avoided with an academic plan and written notice or a doctor’s note. School staff should intervene when students have two or more unexcused absences a month. When a student switches schools, attendance records are to be transferred.

The biggest change is the requirement that districts with more than 200 students partner with juvenile courts to set up community truancy boards by fall 2017. Smaller districts may team up with larger ones or with other organizations.

With a truancy board, students and families talk to a local group about why the students miss school. Boards should have representatives from the district, along with volunteers such as parents, coaches, counselors and nonprofit staff. Multiple districts say they’ve asked Cocoon House to have someone on their boards.

Truancy boards are a way to intervene before families are summoned to court. They may provide the first hearing for a truancy case, and have authority to reach agreements with students about their attendance goals and recommend actions such as enrolling the student in an alternative school.

Last school year, more than 11,100 truancy petitions were filed with Washington courts, the highest number of cases over the last four years.

The community boards are less intimidating than truancy court, administrators say. Volunteers who know the community can connect students with the help they need.

The reasons

There are common factors that contribute to repeated absences.

Along with homelessness and poverty, students may miss school due to mental or physical health issues, problems at home, or a negative school environment. Lack of friendships or a trusted adult are concerns when kids skip class, as is substance abuse by the student or in their household.

For some, school isn’t valued at home, making kids less motivated to attend, educators say.

Schools are reaching out. In Arlington, teachers and administrators started in-school campaigns such as Strive for Five, which encourages students to attend all five days each week. Dinosaurs or dragons have been put up on elementary walls and kids add scales for every day they attend.

“They see themselves as knights or heroes,” assistant superintendent Kathy Ehman said.

Regular attendance earns prizes. The district also is being more diligent about sending letters after two absences, then five, then 10, Ehman said. Families may get a phone call, too.

Arlington recently had its first truancy board meeting. The board got insight into the struggles students face, including anxiety and toxic relationships, Ehman said.

Monroe also had a couple of truancy board meetings this year.

The Edmonds and Marysville districts are training staff, with plans to create multiple boards over the next couple of years. Edmonds also updated policies so absences are consistently defined and recorded.

Edmonds administrators aim to study the causes behind absences, said Justin Irish, assistant superintendent.

Diversity, equity and outreach specialist Karla Sanchez, says the biggest issue is mental health. A few years ago, the district teamed up with local organizations. Verdant, its main partner, helped place student support advocates in schools.

Absences are a nationwide issue. A U.S. Department of Education report based on 2013-14 data ranked Washington’s chronic absences second highest in the nation. That placement likely is affected by how states track attendance and define absences — not how many kids show up for class.

The ranking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Ehman, with Arlington schools.

“The good news and bad news is that it’s shocking data,” she said. “It makes you think. We really need to do something about this.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com

Percent of students chronically absent during 2015-16 school year
School District Percent Absent
Arlington 18.2
Darrington 20.1
Edmonds 14.1
Everett 17.9
Granite Falls 15.5
Index 22.4
Lake Stevens 11.9
Lakewood 16.7
Marysville 21.6
Monroe 10.4
Mukilteo 12.1
Northshore 9.7
Snohomish 16.7
Stanwood-Camano 16.9
Sultan 10.4
Countywide 14.5
Statewide 16.7

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