Empty seats: Reversing chronic absenteeism rates in Arizona schools will take time

Feb 7, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: Feb 8, 2023, 9:32 am
(AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)...
(AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
(AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

This is the fourth of a four-part series examining chronic absenteeism in Arizona schools. Read part one, part two and part three here.

PHOENIX — The rate of students missing too many school days spiked following the pandemic in Arizona, and now schools are on the hunt for solutions.

But experts warn it will take some time to see improvements.

“The problem took a long time to get here,” said Terri Clark, state literacy director with Read On Arizona, which advocates for early literacy in the state. “It has only gotten worse, so the solution is not going to happen overnight.”

A new report by the Helios Education Foundation in partnership with WestEd looked at K-8th grade students in Arizona and found up to 14% of students were chronically absent before the pandemic. That spiked to 22% — or nearly one in five – in 2021.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne told KTAR News 92.3 FM he worries students are not going to get educated if they’re missing so many school days. He urges schools to contact parents as soon as students begin to accumulate a few absences.

“And then, ultimately, there need to be some consequences,” Horne said. “For example, if you’re absent for 10 days, you get an automatic F in the course.”

Horne also suggested passing legislation to delay students’ ability to apply for a driver’s license if they have too many absences in school. He said he sees it as an incentive for high school students to have good attendance.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, introduced a bill last month dealing with students who are suspended for missing school. Instead of being sent home, students would have to spend their suspension period in an isolated location at school and be given academic work.

Horne prefers out-of-school suspension as punishment.

“Part of the point is to get the parents’ attention, and that’s what we need,” Horne said. “We want them to be upset, because they’d have to convey to their children that they’ve got to attend school.”

Experts have warned that punitive responses to poor attendance are not effective. Instead, they’ve suggested addressing the root causes that lead to students missing school in the first place.

“It could be a health issue, it could be a transportation issue, it could be a workforce issue – there are so many reasons why it might be happening,” Clark said.

She added there’s no one blanket solution to solving chronic absenteeism. She plans to spend the next year leading a statewide task force that will look for various evidence-based approaches to reducing chronic absenteeism in Arizona schools.

“At the local level is where the solutions have to work,” she said. “For example, what works in a rural school might not be what an urban school needs.”

The task force is made up of various state agencies and organizations. They will look at what other states have done that has been successful in addressing this issue.

“Also, what do we have that’s working in our own back yard in Arizona,” she said. “There are some schools that have really had great success in reducing chronic absenteeism. What are they doing? How did it work for them?”

The goal is to come up with recommendations for policies and interventions in about a year.

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Empty seats: Reversing chronic absenteeism rates in Arizona schools will take time