Every fall, in anticipation of the imminent beginning of a new school year, Columbia Falls High School Principal Jon Konen looks through a trove of data about the incoming freshmen class. This year, as he prepared for the forthcoming batch of students, one particularly alarming statistic caught his attention.
“I noticed that 30% of our students had missed more than 20 days of school last year,” Konen said. “You can guess the gaps that our students might have if they miss that amount of school. That was one-third of our incoming freshmen, and as a high school that’s really tough to work with. And those freshmen weren’t the only ones – we have had quite a few students who have missed a lot of school over the past couple of years.”
A school year is around 185 days long. What happens when a student misses over 10% of that time?
Covid made this a pervasive reality nationwide and the Flathead Valley was no exception. Both Flathead and Glacier High School reported that during and immediately following the pandemic, the attendance percentage ranged in the mid 80s – meaning on any given day, around 15% of students were missing school.
Now, overall attendance rates at these two schools are creeping back up into a percent range in the 90s. However, educators still acutely feel the aftershocks from the unprecedented levels of student absenteeism during the pandemic. Glacier High School Principal Brad Holloway said some of his chronically absent students are missing more days of school than ever before.
“We still have a segment of our population that you would define as chronic and what I’ve noticed is that they went from missing maybe 10 or 15 days to more than that,” Holloway said. “So, there’s a group that’s grown in their absenteeism, even though collectively as a school we’ve gotten better.”
For schools, chronic absenteeism among students has potentially devastating consequences, putting an institution at risk of losing its accreditation. For students, the long-term effects on learning have already been realized. Instructors have had to make substantial adjustments in their school curriculums to teach students what should have already been basic knowledge.
“Trying to create instruction and curriculum that helps and supports those students is difficult, especially if that absenteeism continues,” Konen said. “If they’re missing school, then we’re having to do a lot of reteaching of concepts.”
Kalispell School Board Trustee Sue Corrigan said that from a broader lens, many of the Flathead Valley’s initiatives to increase school attendance rates have been successful. One such measure was re-instituting attendance incentives, which reward students with four or fewer absences by exempting them from the final semester assessment. Corrigan also said that schools have increased tutoring, mental health counseling, and grading flexibility in recent years.
“We’ve had these gaps in attendance, grades and enrollment, but things are starting to level out,” Corrigan said. “A lot of the support systems we put in to combat learning loss have been successful because we are seeing the kids back in school and we’re seeing achievement levels get back up again.”
Corrigan added that a priority continues to be empowering students who previously missed significant amounts of school.
“Sometimes kids get so far behind that they just kind of give up because they think it’s a lost cause,” Corrigan said. “But we have so much support for kids: tutoring, mentoring, peer mentoring, and kids really can get caught up if they put the effort in. I think most of our teachers are more than willing to work with their kids to get them back in school and keep them in school.”
Fair-Mont-Egan School Superintendent and Principal Brandy Carlenzoli said that at the K-8 level, chronic absenteeism is the leading indicator that a student will not learn the material necessary to succeed the next year. She said that most families understand that school is compulsory, but grasping how detrimental missing school can be is not always as clear.
“We try to stay in contact with the families and build a level of partnership and trust,” Carlenzoli said. “This year, we have letters that will go out as reminders of the importance of school when a student becomes truant or becomes chronically absent. If a student continues to be absent after the letter, or stops coming to school completely and doesn’t enroll elsewhere, I check in with the County Superintendent and our School Resource Officer, and eventually refer the family to Child and Family Services.”
Konen said that some students who miss many days of school cite illness as the reason. Unlike the period that immediately followed the pandemic, schools no longer encourage students to stay home at the slightest sign of sickness; this shift has been challenging for some families to wrap their heads around. Holloway added that others may skip school due to trouble forming friendships and transportation issues.
However, chronic absenteeism can also be a symptom of larger family strife. Konen said that the number of homeless students has increased “tremendously” over the last few years.
“Before we can really work on the academic part, it’s really hard for a kid who has unstable housing and no food to learn,” Konen said. “People are trying to help support our families that are in difficult situations, some are living in trailer homes. So that’s going to be an ever-growing problem and it definitely affects our families in the Columbia Falls area and the greater Flathead.”
Tamara Sundberg, student and family advocate and homeless liaison for school districts, said that the best way to support homeless students’ education is by working to meet their basic needs. Programs like the Columbia Falls Child Assistance Team raise money to provide food, clothing, and housing as well as organize transportation to and from school.
“Homelessness isn’t always an easy thing to identify,” Sundberg said. “First and foremost, we determine what the barriers are to students getting to school, and we work with parents to try and alleviate some of those barriers and eliminate them. If a kid can’t get to a school, we’ve got to figure out why.”
Holloway said that homelessness has been a contributing factor to some students’ poor attendance at Glacier High School as well.
“We certainly have students that are couch surfing or struggling with permanent, stable living conditions,” Holloway said. “Some of them really are very resilient and they get to school and it’s a good, safe place. Then there’s some of them where that hurdle is really big.”
Columbia Falls Superintendent Cory Dziowgo said that families should work with their schools and teachers when dealing with tough personal situations or circumstances that require students to miss school rather than keeping it to themselves.
“I just hope families keep that communication with their schools, so we can help support in whatever manner we can,” Dziowgo said. “If we don’t know what they’re going through, what they need help with, or what the situation is, then we can’t deploy our resources to help them.”
Holloway said that in an education ecosystem where students may be navigating a myriad of challenges, from friendships to family dynamics to housing and transportation, Flathead Valley schools can best serve their students and combat chronic absenteeism by continuing to offer strong and consistent academic and interpersonal support.
“We need to make sure that we can continue to have offerings for students to engage in areas that they’re passionate about,” Holloway said. “And building relationships is still key. I think it’s fair to say that we aren’t where we’d love to be, but our kids are doing a good job, our staff is doing a good job and we just want to continue to improve every single day.”
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