Chronic absenteeism is 'huge problem' for Roanoke schools

16 percent of students are missing 10 percent or more of school year

ROANOKE, Va. – Battling the high number of chronically absent students in Roanoke City Schools is something the district calls a huge issue.

Sixteen percent of students are missing 10 percent or more of the school year. That's about two days a month.

"For our high school kids, we have a lot of kids who feel like they need to work instead of going to school to help provide for their families," said Dr. Julie Drewry, the Roanoke City Schools director of student improvement.

She says other students miss class because of chronic illnesses like asthma. Some families move out of state and don't tell the school district so they become a "dropout," and there are also couch surfers who don't have a permanent home and move from place to place.

Roanoke schools are trying new things to get students into the classroom and drop the number of kids missing class, such as:

  • Students are now required to stay after school or come in on Saturdays at some schools with high levels of absenteeism.  
  • Teachers are making phone calls to absent students and parents.  
  • There are specific people at each school focused on attendance issues like more time for the assistant principals dealing with absenteeism or social workers helping families that have truant students.

Drewry says parent education is also key because if kindergartners are allowed to stay home, they develop bad habits at a young age, and it only gets worse as they get older.

"I don't think it's something our youngsters really realize. I don't know that our parents really realize it," said Drewry. "If you are chronically absent for one year you are half as likely to graduate from high school. That's huge. Especially knowing that elementary kids, it's not their fault. It's their parents aren't getting them to school. We've got to combat that."

Drewry says there are other long-term problems linked to missing class too.

"We see a lot of mental health issues in kids that are truant, whether it be depression or anxiety, whatever it may be, but those issues, if they remain untreated for long enough, are going to be a hindrance to the students coming to school," Drewry said.

School officials say more awareness is helping, but absenteeism remains a huge issue. Drewry says it's a generational problem — many of the students who are missing class now had parents who dropped out or missed a lot of class themselves.

Drewry says they will continue to try new things.

In the fall, the chronic absenteeism rate was more than 17 percent. It's now dropped to 16 percent.


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