Editorial Roundup: The high price to pay when youth skip school

Published 8:50 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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Too many Minnesota students are missing too much time in the classroom. Over 30% of the state’s students were chronically absent in 2021-22, the most recent data available, according to the state Education Department. That means thousands of state kids weren’t getting the education they need.

To address the problem, more should be done to better understand why these students aren’t regularly getting to school. Schools, social service agencies, key public officials and families should prioritize the issue and work together to get and keep kids in class.

It matters because each day absent is a missed opportunity for students to learn and keep up. They will likely be less proficient in reading, writing and math compared to those who attend school regularly. Research shows that spotty attendance is one of the best predictors of dropping out in high school. And that, in turn, is linked to poor job prospects, health issues and being involved in the juvenile justice system.

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Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as missing at least 10% of school time. In Minnesota, that amounts to about 17 or 18 days, or three and a half weeks out of the roughly nine-month school year. And that number is a median — some kids within that category miss many more days than that, with some of them disappearing from school altogether.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he is working with various stakeholders in the county to bring more students back to schools. He told an editorial writer that county attorneys have a role to play through enforcing truancy laws, but he’s emphasizing working with other agencies to connect with families and kids first.

“We need to meet families where they are and see what we can to do help parents get kids to school,” he said. “The Legislature can help with requiring improved data and providing resources to schools, but not everything we can do needs legislation. Elected leaders can pay attention and speak out.”

Choi said he’s seen a “distinct connection” between some violent offenses committed by school-age kids and chronic absenteeism. He said that when law enforcement picks up some young offenders and asks where they go to the school, they simply answer that they “don’t go to school.”

Matt Shaver, policy director for the advocacy group EdAllies, told an editorial writer that many of last educational initiatives that came out of the last legislative session would help those kids who are skipping school. Because they aren’t there, they miss out on programs funded last year to provide free meals and mental health support.

Shaver said regular attendance is a fundamental education issue that needs greater attention in Minnesota. He agrees that better data is needed because the reason that a 6-year-old misses school is likely very different from why a 16-year-old skips out.

According to the state’s 2021-22 data, nearly half of students living in poverty and 40% of Black and Latino students were not regularly attending school, and more than half of Native students were chronically absent. And in 78 districts across the state, more than half of the students were chronically absent.

Though the numbers are higher in urban districts, chronic absenteeism is a problem that crosses all lines. More than 200,000 students are affected, according to state figures, and they live in urban, suburban and rural areas. They come from all age groups, including elementary and secondary students.

And the problem became worse during the COVID pandemic, when so many students were supposed to be learning online from home.

As both Choi and Shaver point out, Minnesota is not alone — chronic absenteeism is widespread nationally. About one of every six students, or 15%, missed three weeks or more of school in 2015-16 in the U.S. That number jumped to nearly 30% during the 2021-22 academic year, according to federal data.

“We’re talking about numbers that are not going to fix themselves on their own,” Shaver said of the need to examine and prioritize the problem. “We are trying to start a conversation.”

— Star Tribune Editorial Board

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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