Thursday, August 04, 2011

A Diseased Attendance Card

One of the items my Title One students struggle with more than their suburban counter parts is absenteeism and tardiness. When I taught at a wealthy suburban school, a student who missed 9 days of school was considered an outlier and tardy meant being 5 minutes late for class once or twice a year.

Not so at my present school. As you look at these attendance cards, note that a circled date meant the child was absent and a T indicates that they were tardy.

Now by tardy, I don't mean 5 minutes late. That happens on occasion, but those Ts are often referring to 40 minutes or more.

These cards are an example of what occurs for about a third of my classroom. Another third has a little higher rate than my previous suburban school, the remaining third has 5 or less absences and tardies per year.

The reasons for these tardies and absences are many and varied. Sometimes, it is simply because the parent has no control over the child. Here are two examples:

I had a student who regularly arrived 40 - 60 minutes late for class. The student always had stories of the parent not being ready, the siblings not being ready, the car broke down, etc. The parent just stated that "we have trouble getting out the door". However, I started to notice that my student's younger siblings were at school on time, whereas my student was not. I thought that, perhaps, my student was making a McDonald's run before coming to class. So I went and asked a sibling where my student was. The sibling replied, "My (parent) has to go back and get (student), cause (student) never gets up with the rest of us. My (parent) tries to get (student) up, but (student) just yells, 'Shut UP! I'm tryin to sleep!'"

Another student showed up pretty regularly at 10:00 during recess (school starts at 8:00). The student missed the math instruction almost every day. When informed about the tardiness, the parent shrugged, "Sounds like you have a problem." A later conversation revealed that the parent was working three jobs and was completely overwhelmed between work and 3 children. The parent later cried during a conference, expressing gratefulness that the student came at all.

Sometimes the tardiness and absences are due to the practical matters of work. I had a student who was the oldest of five children in a one parent household. The parent was an hourly worker with no sick time. It fell upon this student to stay home when one of the siblings got sick. When a sibling was sick for a week, my student was out for the week.

Our schools have no legal enforcement over tardies. Technically, a child could be two hours late for school every day of the year and there would be little we could do about it. It is not until 20 absences that the courts get involved... and even then, parents miss court dates, the school year ends, the family moves. The schools have little power to deal with chronic absenteeism.

Amidst these issues (and perhaps underlying a lot of the cases) is the transient nature of many of my students. I usually start each year with a quarter of my class attending our school for the first time. Throughout the year I will have many move-ins and move-outs (20 to 35 percent). Few of my students have attended our school since kindergarten. It does not surprise me to often find that my chronically tardy and absent students have already attended 4-8 different schools; sometimes multiple schools within the same year.

The academic harm of tardiness and absenteeism is not restricted to the student alone. Tardy students disrupt class as they stream in at varying times. Chronically absent and tardy students tend to be lost in regards to the material being covered and misbehavior increases as a result.

Still, this morning I heard a politician talking about the substandard teaching that inner-city kids have to endure, while suburban students are getting the quality teachers.

Pardon me while I go bang my head against the wall........

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