Monday, October 17, 2011

Attendance Counts at the CSE Table

The new mantra and push in my district this year is "Attendance Counts." Last year, my principal organized an "attendance team" to combat chronic absenteeism at my building, but we were understaffed and overbooked with other responsibilities to be effective (plus I think only two of us were actually doing the work). Everyone at the district level realized the HUGE problem attendance is, but like our building, the district was not adequately staffed and prepared to deal with the problem. I referred a slew of attendance problem kids to the attendance office downtown, and little was done about it because one woman was trying to deal with the attendance problems of thousands of students. Sounds quite effective! (/saracasm)

Over the summer, the district hired some Attendance Teachers and developed a relationship with Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, who has worked extensively to improve attendance in schools in New York City. She will be the keynote at our district's "Attendance Counts Summit" in November. I will likely be attending the summit and will have more information to share then about the district's new attendance initiatives as they come into fruition.

As educators, we know attendance counts. Kids that don't come to school aren't exposed to curriculum, fall behind, get retained, drop out of school, etc. Not to mention what some of them get into when they're not in school (if mischief gets made in the hour after school ends, think about what happens when all the non-attenders are roaming around all day).

Attendance has important meaning to members of the CSE team, in particular school psychologists, who are making special education eligibility determinations for kids. Over the summer, I mentioned that I was assigned over a dozen cases to evaluate by one of the associate superintendents, because the students were all having varying levels of difficulty, had been retained several times, and were much older than they should be for the grade they were in (and were at risk of not finishing school by 21). The more I reviewed the records of these cases, the more I realized that many of them had been retained in the first place due to chronic attendance issues. Here's where an uncomfortable wrench gets thrown in: can we say that an underachieving student has an educational disability requiring special education services when they are not in school to have access to the curriculum? The NY State Part 200 regulations tell us:

A student shall not be determined eligible for special education if the determinant factor is:
      (i) lack of appropriate instruction in reading, including explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency (including oral reading skills) and reading comprehension strategies;
     (ii) lack of appropriate instruction in math; or
     (iii) limited English proficiency.
[Part 200.4(c)(2); emphasis mine]
A lack of appropriate instruction basically means anything that has kept a student from getting a good education, poor attendance included. In short, if a kid is struggling in school but has a chronic attendance problem, we cannot call that student educationally disabled and eligible for special education services because they have not been exposed to appropriate instruction.

I had this scenario happen to me recently with two of those summer cases, and it's a tough situation to be put into. One case, Y, was a chronic attendance problem last year and received direct instruction in reading and math due to deficits. She was at least two grade levels behind and wasn't showing improvement through "intensive" interventions in a small group setting. When I tested her, she had a super significant discrepancy between her verbal and nonverbal reasoning, suggesting a verbal learning disability. Although her poor attendance was still concerning to us, we classified her as Learning Disabled (although mom refused to sign for services, which is another story).

The second case, P, was more sticky. P was absent for 50 days in 5th grade and 55 days last year in 6th. His history of absenteeism was significant throughout his school career, and he repeated 3rd and 5th grades. He actually started this year repeating 6th, but my principal moved him onto 7th due to his age (he's almost 15--good call). P teeter-tottered in the "strategic" range of academics, about one year behind, and he didn't receive any interventions. He scored within the low average range on standardized achievement and IQ measures. We didn't feel confident classifying him even though he was behind, because his achievement and IQ were commensurate and his poor attendance suggesting he hadn't had appropriate instruction. What a hard decision to make, especially for a kid who is having some trouble.

Have you had a CSE case like Y or P? How does your school or district deal with attendance concerns?

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  1. I had a similar case at my school last year where I had to initially work with a student who was repeating the 8th grade for the third time, by providing him with counseling support. Then same student ended our sessions and skipped 90 days of school. He was then referred to the SPED team to determine eligibility. His lack of exposure to the curriculum was a huge factor in our meetings. But after repeating the grade for the third time and with worsening attendance each year, how much more exposure could we really expect him to have to the curriculum?

  2. Was CPS ever involved with your 8th grader, Mo? Seems like a case of educational neglect. I always feel unsure reporting attendance issues to CPS. Obviously we're mandated, but attendance seems like something that might get passed by, since we've had pretty blatant cases of physical abuse that CPS has deemed "unfounded."

  3. In Baltimore, schools are sharing attendance data with the social services department. The child welfare workers check to see what's going on with kids in the foster care system but they also look for cases where kids are chronically absent as a tip off to something else going on in a family. Last summer, social workers visited the homes of 250 kids (K-2) who had been absent more than 40 days the previous year. A third of them needed an asthma pump.

  4. Sounds like Baltimore is on the right track, Phyllis! Glad to see that social services is looking into cases of poor attendance. Often times there are other things going on, which would never be found unless someone paid an interest.

  5. I work in Canada and in my schools we focus on building relationships with families. Attendance is always a symptom and not the primary factor. In order to address this as the school counsellor I meet with families and we work as a team to address this issue. During these meetings I work to address the real reasons for non-attendance (a child needing to help babysit, a child worried about parents safety - whether due to drug usage, domestic violence etc, bullying, learning issues, improper power distribution in the home - a child who has more power or responsibilities than a parent ect) we then work to base interventions on the underlying issue rather than the symptom. When the family is willing to engage in this process (and a large majority are) we have success.

    For example - last month I had a referral for 2 siblings who had missed over 50% of school so far this year. I contacted their mother and made arrangements to meet with her at her home (she had a young baby and it was difficult for her to come to meet with me). During this meeting mom revealed that she had relapsed into her drug use and that she often slept in and the kids often stayed home because they were worried about their baby sibling. Mom agreed that we could access her previous addiction counsellor and we were able, as a team, to support mom in accessing addiction services. The children's attendance has now improved (it's not perfect - but we measure success as to what is relevant for the individual child.)

    Our families are our partners and our team of support for our students.

  6. You're right on the money, Pam. We face a lot of these same issues in our school. We now have an attendance teacher, a former social worker, who is engaging families, making home visits, and trying to take down some of the barriers resulting in absenteeism. Our school counselor is doing the same with our 7th & 8th grade students. We also have wraparound services for some families when needed, and collaborate with outside professionals. Home-school partnerships are critical.


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