A common sense solution to school absenteeism

I like this op-ed piece posted on The New York Times today:  It’s How To Get Kids To Class: To Keep Poor Students in School, Provide Social Services, by Daniel J. Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools that is running the program he mentioned.

The pattern often starts early. Last year in New Mexico, a third-grade teacher contacted the local affiliate of Communities in Schools, the national organization that I run, for help with a student who had 25 absences in just the first semester. After several home visits, we found that 10 people were living in her two-bedroom apartment, including the student’s mother, who had untreated mental health issues. The little girl often got lost in the shuffle, with no clean clothes to wear and no one to track her progress. Nor was there anything like a quiet place to do homework.

Embarrassment and peer pressure turned out to be the most immediate problem. By buying new clothes to replace the girl’s smelly old ones, we were able to help her fit in and get her to school more often. We found additional community resources for both the third grader and her family, including a mentorship group, a housing charity and mental health experts for her mother. As her home life stabilized over the second semester, the absences all but stopped, and at the end of the year she moved up with her class.

Her situation is common, but there are nowhere near enough happy endings. That’s because policy makers usually treat dropout rates and chronic absenteeism as “school” problems, while issues like housing and mental health are “social” problems with a different set of solutions.

To bridge this divide, our community school model seeks to bring a site coordinator, with training in education or social work, onto the administrative team of every school with a large number of poor kids. That person would be charged with identifying at-risk students and matching them up with services that are available both in the school and the community.

Putting social workers in schools is a low-cost way of avoiding bigger problems down the road, analogous to having a social worker in a hospital emergency room. It’s a common-sense solution that will still require a measure of political courage, something that all too often has itself been chronically absent.

Indeed, and again, it takes a whole village to raise a child.


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