OP-ED: The Impacts of Truancy

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Jessica Pinson Pennington

I skipped a lot of school back in the day. A lot of school. I would pick up my best friend Patricia and head to school — only to make a left instead of a right and head out for the day. We weren’t Thelma and Louise, we were Ferris Bueller. And we had a lot of fun. Because, although we missed every other Tuesday all through junior and senior year, we got good grades, went home to nice houses, ate dinners with our (intact) families and eventually went to college. So what’s all the current fuss over truancy?

The fuss is that while skipping school has been around as long as the schoolhouse, chronic truancy has been shown to lead to school disengagement and, if continued unchecked, to dropping out of school entirely. In fact, missing school has become such a problem in this country that one of the four primary indicators by which most school principals are measured is their student body attendance.

Presumably monitoring student attendance was implemented in an effort to nudge school administrators and teachers to look at things like the quality of instruction, school environment and student support so that any necessary changes could be made and students would either reengage or stay engaged with their dynamic learning environment.

Some schools absolutely rose to the challenge, and many children have benefited. Some attempted to accommodate missing students only to find that the root issue was at home and largely beyond the school’s reach. And sadly, some schools simply didn’t try very hard or worse, created punitive, threatening environments that pushed even more students right out the front door. According to a report by America’s Promise that was released at the end of May, (“Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation,” May 20, 2014) the country’s graduation rate is at an all-time high of 80 percent. But for the remaining 20 percent, an exploration of the factors that drove them to drop out begs the question, why are we waiting for them to drop out to find the causes of disengagement?

Dropping out of school is not a singular event. It is a slow process of disengagement that requires us to look at the primary reasons children are absent and then devise mechanisms to pull them back from the brink. Working with hundreds of just such kids every year, I see the reasons kids leave school falling into one of four categories. The students are:

  1. already too far behind and unsupported by parents and educators to feel like they can ever catch up,
  2. unchallenged and bored,
  3. experiencing health-related issues that are severe and chronic enough to keep them from regular school attendance, or
  4. an outlier whose situation doesn’t fit into one of the first three categories.

Now, we could take these one at a time, but essentially, if children feel unwanted or threatened, they tend to stay away. If children feel hopeless, they tend to find something better to do. If children are too depressed, drug dependent or ill to sit at a desk and interact for eight hours, they tend to focus on the relief of those circumstances at the expense of school. And finally, and as I wish funders would embrace, these are people we’re talking about and therefore often don’t fit neatly into one category or another. There are simply occasions where a child is experiencing so many things at once that she can’t function as a traditional student.

Children who are not in school do not have the opportunity to learn. And I’m not just talking about missing high school French. I’m talking about the social development opportunities available through group projects and extra-curricular activities, the chance to build relationships with teachers and coaches who can influence them in ways parents and other adults might not be able to. And, maybe most critically, when children are chronically absent from school, they miss out on developing a work ethic that could potentially shepherd them through life even if they never master French.

The chronic absenteeism occurring today directly correlates to the national drop-out rates that, while improving, most are still calling “epidemic.” As with other issues that affect children, the financial price to society of this epidemic isn’t as high today as it will be tomorrow when we don’t have much of a workforce. But the bill will come. We can choose to pay it now with interventions broad enough to address myriad student issues, including curriculum options for those kids who are not college bound and that address the mental and emotional issues that children face at home or we will be forced to pay a much greater price down the line.

Jessica Pinson Pennington is executive director of the Truancy Intervention Project Georgia (truancyproject.com), a 20-year-­old nonprofit organization.

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