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State leaders focus on Indiana's chronic absenteeism problem  

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Posted at 5:50 PM, Feb 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-08 18:26:23-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Mary Moore says her 14-year-old daughter Miriam loves makeup, loves doing hair and loves to be with her mother all the time.

The two are like best friends.

Together, they are working through a problem that started about two and a half years ago.

"She started getting sick every time she went to school," Mary Moore said. "And she would have to come home."

Time only made things worse.

Miriam was in pain and didn't know why, which made attending school difficult.      

"So she was at a point when she was probably going once every other week," Mary Moore said.

Mary moved her daughter from one school district to another, which she felt had more resources in place for help students with health challenges.

They enrolled Miriam in virtual learning, but that, too, was a struggle.      

"Even with the virtual school she still missed a lot of schooling because she was in and out of the hospitals," Mary Moore said.

Mental and physical health struggles, as Miriam has grappled with, are just some of the many underlying causes keeping students from attending classes, so the Indiana Department of Education is focusing on identifying these wide-ranging variables and addressing them to improve student attendance and learning.  

State Secretary of Education Dr. Katie Jenner says about one in five children in Indiana are missing almost a month of school.

Calculations from her department show Indiana's chronic absenteeism rate for the 2022-23 school year was 19.3%, a significant increase since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State of Indiana defines "chronically absent" as missing 10% of days during a school year, which translates to 18 days or more. 

Numbers also show one out of two students at 84 schools in Indiana are chronically absent.

Dr. Jenner believes solving the state's chronic absenteeism problem will be a collaborative effort.

"What a solvable opportunity we have to work together," Dr. Jenner said. "Educators, parents and families, community leaders to do everything we can to make sure students are at school and making sure we understand that root cause."

Data from the Indiana Department of Education shows students in kindergarten, first and second grades are more likely to be chronically absent, as are high school students.

The IDOE data shows only students in upper-elementary grades and middle school are attending class more regularly.

Dr. Jenner says it is imperative to speak with the parent or guardians of younger students who are having truancy issues to determine the reason why students are missing class and reach solutions.

Dr. Jenner also acknowledges high school students may face some unconventional or unexpected barriers.

Older siblings may be taking on caretaker roles in their households -- or working jobs to make ends meet at home, which may compete with their schooling.

"We're also hearing very honestly that some students don't see the relevance in their high school learning in particular," Dr. Jenner said.

To address the issue, the IDOE is working to rethink the high school experience to engage students and connect them to projects they view as important and impactful.

Other reasons include students struggling with learning issues or failing to develop adequate reading skills at a younger age.

"So, when they come to those upper level grades, they're embarrassed because they don't have the skill set that some of their peers do, so it's easier to not come to school," Jenner said.

Dr. Jenner is also pushing for changes to state laws this legislative session, when it comes to addressing absenteeism.

In fact, the IDOE is testing a new early-warning dashboard system for educators and families.

The dashboard would clearly show which students risk not-graduating and attendance would serve as a high-ranking indicator.

For Mary Moore and her daughter, Miriam, who is battling sickle-cell disease, they found an option called "Homebound Schooling" in which a certified teacher offers lessons at the home and also through Zoom.

Mary says the program is tailor-made to her daughter and the challenges Miriam faces due to her illness.

So far, Mary says, it is working.