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Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance WorksOne in 10 students in kindergarten and the first grade is chronically absent, and by sixth grade, chronic absence becomes one of the early warning signs that a student may drop out of high school. This September, City Year is partnering with Attendance Works to recognize Attendance Awareness Month, a new national initiative to encourage strong attendance at the beginning of the school year. Together we can help students come to school to learn and keep returning every day.

Hedy Chang, the Director of Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence, talks to City Year about the challenges students face and how we can best support them.

Q: One in 10 kids in kindergarten and 1st grade are chronically absent, or missing 10 percent of the school year. Why are so many young children missing so much school?

A: We tend to think about absenteeism as a matter of high school students skipping school. But the reality is that poor attendance starts in the early grades. And often the absences are excused. In some instances, parents simply don’t understand how important attendance is in kindergarten or even prekindergarten and let their youngsters stay home.

In other cases, children face actual barriers to attending school: They lack access to health care or reliable transportation. They move frequently or are homeless. They live in neighborhoods where there’s no safe way to walk to school, either because of traffic or street violence.

And even among our youngest students, we see signs of children avoiding school because of bullying or academic struggles. Parents need help from healthcare providers to know when a stomachache is a sign of illness—and when it’s an expression of anxiety.

Q: How does poor student attendance in elementary school impact the likelihood of academic success in later years?

A: Unfortunately these early absences add up pretty quickly to academic trouble: difficulty reading by the end of third grade, retention and poor attendance habits in later grades. The effects are particular bad if children are chronically absent for two or three years in a row.

Q: Why is it essential to start off the school year with strong attendance?

A: Good attendance is basically a habit, and it’s important to establish that habit from day 1 of school. Students need to know that regular, on-time attendance is an expectation. Missing 10 percent of the school year adds up to missing 18 days, or just two to three days a month. This can happen before you know it.

Q: How can communities support attendance initiatives in their schools?

A: I see three key ways. First, community organizations can provide that “extra shift of adults” needed to reach out to kids with marginal attendance. City Year does such a great job of mentoring at-risk students. At schools without this sort of support, community volunteers can fill some gaps.

Second, community leaders can help create a culture of attendance. Faith leaders can stress the importance of good attendance with their congregations. Business owners can talk to their employees about it. Local businesses can donate prizes for students or classrooms with the most improved attendance.

Finally, they can work on the barriers that keep some students from getting to school. If there’s no safe way to walk to school, community volunteers can lead students through difficult neighborhoods or act as safety guards at dangerous intersections. Health providers can pitch in to develop asthma plans or deliver immunizations. Housing authority workers can knock on doors and make sure every kid is in school. Schools and families shouldn’t have to do this alone. The whole community can help.

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang directs Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence.   A skilled presenter, facilitator, researcher and writer, she co-authored the seminal report, Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, as well as numerous other articles about student attendance. Deeply committed to promoting two-generation solutions to achieving a more just and equitable society, Hedy has spent more than two decades working in the fields of family support, family economic success, education and child development. She served as a senior program officer at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and as co-director of California Tomorrow, a nonprofit committed to drawing strength from cultural, linguistic and racial diversity. In February 2013, Hedy was named by the White House as a Champion of Change for her commitment to furthering African American Education. Hedy is also the mother of two school-aged sons who attend public school in San Francisco.

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