Intervention key to addressing 'alarming' rates of chronic absenteeism, educators say

With 30% chronic absenteeism reported statewide last school year, school leaders across the suburbs are exploring different approaches to improving student attendance rates this fall.

State education officials have identified absenteeism as an area of “immediate need.” The Illinois State Board of Education has awarded $12 million in grants to the 38 regional offices of education and intermediate service centers statewide this fall to address the problem.

“Students, especially Black and Hispanic students, were chronically absent at alarming rates last year,” State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said last week ahead of the release of the 2022 Illinois School Report Card data.

Chronic absenteeism was at 48% among Black students and 36% among Hispanic students, report card data show.

Across the suburbs, school districts saw a wide range of chronic absentee rates ranging from the single digits to highs just over 60%. A student who misses 10% or more of a school year — roughly 17 days or more — is considered chronically absent. Research shows poor attendance affects students at all levels.

“Just missing a few days can have a really great impact on a child,” said Amber Quirk, assistant regional superintendent for the DuPage County Regional Office of Education.

But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school officials are quick to note that solutions to chronic absenteeism are not meant to be punitive in nature. Rather, many are using state funds to develop programs that look at what's keeping students from school and how those barriers can be removed.

“We've moved away from a truancy officer kind of model,” said Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents and executive director of the West 40 and Intermediate Service Center 2, which includes schools in West suburban Cook County. “We're much more about wraparound services and reaching out to families. If there's a reason why students aren't coming (to school), we want to know how we can help.”

Anxiety, especially as students adjusted to returning to in-person learning, has been among the top reasons for rising absenteeism, school leaders said. Illness, income levels, a student's home life challenges and other factors also can contribute to absentee rates.

“Chronic absenteeism is a symptom of a much greater issue,” said Kevin Jauch, executive director of the North Cook Intermediate Service Center. “Our goal is to identify what are the barriers that are preventing a child from coming to school ... and then (identify) what kind of solutions can we come up with.”

The North Cook Intermediate Service Center, which includes school districts in northern Cook County, received $611,000 in state funds this year to address absenteeism. The service center is using the funds to hire two student attendance liaisons to work with districts and families across the region and eight student advocates.

The advocates have been assigned in teams of two to work with students at Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine, London Middle School in Wheeling, Maine West High School in Des Plaines and Maine East High School in Park Ridge. The schools saw chronic absentee rates of 27.4%, 16.1%, 43.7% and 37.8%, respectively.

Jauch expects student advocates will work with 200 to 250 students this school year. He hopes to grow the program in future years to include more schools and students.

Regional offices of education in DuPage and Kane counties are using the state funds in similar ways. Kane County has hired four youth outreach specialists. And in DuPage County, behavior interventionists will work with families and students to make sure they have the support they need and a train-the-trainer program will help schools implement curriculum to assist chronically absent students.

The DuPage County Regional Office of Education also has partnered with a University of Illinois-Chicago professor to facilitate a school attendance and truancy network. The network will serve as a resource to school officials across the county and provides an opportunity for educators to share information and collaborate on solutions related to attendance issues.

State grants were awarded to regional offices of education and intermediate service centers this fall to help address chronic absenteeism. Ike Ozuzu, left, and Megan Real are among eight student advocates hired through a state grant to work with schools in the North Cook Intermediate Service Area. The student advocates will begin working with their assigned schools Monday. Courtesy of Kevin Jauch
Jay Funches and Elise Lagunas are among eight student advocates who are part of a new program kicking off through the North Cook Intermediate Service Center, which oversees schools in northern Cook County. Student advocates will begin working with four schools on Monday to address chronic student absenteeism. Courtesy of Kevin Jauch

Highs and lows of chronic absentee ratesChronic absenteeism has been identified as an area of concern by the Illinois State Board of Education. Below is a look at the lows and highs of chronic absentee rates across the suburbs.

<h3 class="breakHead">Cook County</h3>

• High: Maine West High School, Des Plaines, Maine Township High School District 207, 43.7%

• Low: Greenbriar Elementary School, Northbrook, Northbrook School District 28, 3.5%

<h3 class="breakHead">Kane County </h3>

• High: Perry Elementary School, Carpentersville, Community Unit District 300, 61%

• Low: Edna Rollins Elementary School, Aurora, Aurora East Unit School District 131, 3.1%

<h3 class="breakHead">Lake County</h3>

• High: Gavin Central Elementary School, Ingleside, Gavin School District 37, 38.6%

• Low: Copeland Manor Elementary School, Libertyville, Libertyville School District 70, 4.9%

<h3 class="breakHead">DuPage County</h3>

• High: Fenton High School, Bensenville, Fenton Community High School District 100, 47%

• Low: Lester Elementary, Downers Grove, Downers Grove Grade School District 58; tied with Whittier Elementary, Downers Grove, Downers Grove Grade School District 58, 3.8%

*Chart includes schools in the Daily Herald's coverage area.

Source: Illinois state report card data

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