A Civil Beat analysis of recently released data on student absenteeism in the state’s elementary schools suggests that problems with attendance are strongly linked to poverty and where pupils live.

Data culled from the year since the Hawaii Department of Education’s system to measure student performance and improvement was first put into place shows that nearly two in 10 elementary students in Hawaii missed school last year at alarming enough rates to warrant targeted intervention by school officials.

The release of the results marks the first time that “chronic absenteeism” — which the DOE defines as missing 15 or more school days in one year — is being examined with an eye toward holding Hawaii schools accountable. State officials emphasize that all absences — excused or unexcused — take a toll on student performance; only medical emergencies are exempt from the tallies.

Chronic absenteeism is one of an array of measures that are being used to determine school rankings in the state’s new Strive HI Index.

National conversations about student achievement and struggling schools have increasingly centered on chronic absenteeism — a problem that experts say is often a first red flag that students are at risk of falling behind and ultimately of dropping out.

A study by the national advocacy group Attendance Works argues that kindergartners and first graders who were chronically absent performed more poorly on third-grade tests — scoring an average of about 60 points lower (out of roughly 420 points) on California’s standardized reading and math tests, respectively — than students who had high attendance.

“In order for your child to be successful they have to come to school everyday,” said Ann Mahi, the superintendent for schools in the Nanakuli and Waianae areas. “In education, everything is connected.”

Civil Beat decided to take a closer look at Hawaii’s first batch of chronic absenteeism data in light of the increasing interest, and as part of the kick-off in September of the newly declared National Attendance Awareness Month.

In Hawaii, absenteeism is the only metric being used to determine elementary schools’ performance in the “readiness” category. For middle schools, readiness is determined based on 8th graders’ ACT scores, while for high schools it’s a combination of 11th graders’ ACT scores, on-time graduation rates and the percentage of students who enroll in college. (You can find individual school’s reports here.)

While 18 percent of the state’s elementary school children missed 15 or more days of school last year, chronic absenteeism was concentrated in schools on Oahu’s Waianae Coast and the Big Island’s eastern corridor, namely Keaau and Naalehu, the Civil Beat analysis shows.

Both areas are rural and home to some of the state’s poorest residents.

Civil Beat developed a map plotting Hawaii’s elementary schools1, with each school color-coded based on their chronic absenteeism rates. Filtering the map to show only schools where chronic absenteeism exceeded 30 percent reveals significant geographical trending. Notably, nearly all of those schools are along or near the coastline. And the vast majority are far-removed from urban centers.

A separate scatter plot also reveals strong links between family income and chronic absenteeism in children. (See below.)

“Attendance just like behavior is often unique to the place,” David Moyer, a strategic data fellow at the DOE, told Civil Beat earlier this year.

Civil Beat looked at last year’s absenteeism rates in relation to the percentage of each school’s students who receive free or reduced-price meals, a statistic that is used to determine whether a school’s students suffer from high poverty and are eligible for federal Title I funding. (The most recent, readily available high-poverty data is from the 2011-12 school year.)

A relatively consistent upward trend, minus some exceptions, shows that schools with the highest percentages of poor students also have the worst attendance rates. This mirrors national trends, according to a John Hopkins University study that concluded that chronic absenteeism is most prevalent among low-income students.

Some highlights:

School Area % Students Low-Income
Chronic Absenteeism
Rate (SY12-13)
Maili Elementary School Waianae, Oahu 84.1% 41%
Makaha Elementary School Makaha, Oahu 84.6% 46%
Mountain View Elementary school Mountain View, Big Island 90.5% 49%
Naalehu Elementary School Naalehu, Big Island 92.5% 40%
Nanaikapono Elementary School Waianae, Oahu 89.2% 41%

Mahi, the Nanakuli-Waianae superintendent, said school officials along the Leeward Coast are now starting to plan a campaign to combat chronic absenteeism in the area’s schools. Now that they have initial data, they want to answer the “why” question, she said.

Why is chronic absenteeism so high in poor rural schools? Why aren’t parents ensuring that their kids attend school everyday? Why isn’t school engaging enough to encourage consistent attendance?

Mahi said officials have yet to deduce exactly why chronic absenteeism is so prevalent in schools such as those under her purview but she cited problems such as limited childcare options and large distances from town.

When parents have a doctor’s appointment in Honolulu, for example, they’ll often take their children with them because they can’t get back in time to pick them up from school.

Moyer, the DOE data expert, suggested student transportation is another key obstacle — particularly on remote parts of the Big Island that lack developed roads and alternative means of getting around.

Almost all of those students, he said, get to school by bus.

“If the bus doesn’t come, or you miss the bus, there may be a sort of combination of significant physical distance and local poverty that may produce a situation where it’s hard to get to school that day,” he said. “That’s very different from the metropolitan Honolulu, where kids are just much more mobile and able to get around.”

Still, Moyer cautioned against directly linking poverty and geography with the absenteeism, emphasizing that an array of nuanced factors affect attendance.

Principals, Mahi said, have been meeting in groups and formulating school-specific initiatives and strategies for making class more engaging. She pointed to Randall Miura, principal of Waianae’s Leihoku Elementary, who’s developing a program in which school counselors visit the homes of parents whose children are absent at high rates. (Miura couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Mahi also said that schools are looking to strengthen relationships with the community at large. For example, she cited initiatives on the mainland in which schools have partnered with the business community, encouraging stores to keep a look out for — and refuse to serve — kids who aren’t at school during the day.

Meantime, other schools are launching their own campaigns.

One was launched at the beginning of the school year in the 31-school Windward district. The Be Pono initiative was developed by a group of five social workers who, through their work with students and families across the district, realized how important a role attendance plays in long-term student achievement.

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