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Students not in school can’t learn

I like to see my students every day. I know that sounds obvious, since I am a teacher, but I really do. I like to hear them say “good morning” to me as they walk in the door – they dislike this, but I love it. I want to read what they are writing every day. If they are verbally quiet, sometimes reading their writing is the only way I learn things about them. I enjoy listening to them talk to each other during our end-of-the-day STEM project. When I don’t see my students, I get worried. This year, it happened much too often.

It began when I noticed a trend in my classroom. Some of my students were not coming to school on a regular basis. They would miss one day a week or maybe a few days in a row. When I looked at my attendance records, I realized that some of them had missed close to 20 days in the school year. I addressed it with my school administration, and they agreed with me that even 10 days was too much. It is essential for a student to be at school.

And yet, my district’s policy is that a student has to have 20 unexcused absences before we can do something about it. Until then, a student’s absence can be excused by the parent just by calling in or sending a note. This means that students can miss as many days as they want. When I asked my students where they were, I would often hear, “My parents were gone, and I just didn’t get up for the bus.”

There are many important educational issues, but none of them matter if a student is not at school to learn. It is every student’s right to get the best education possible, and we are failing them if we can’t ensure they are at school most of the time. The Revised 2019 Department of Education’s report, “Chronic Absenteeism in the Schools,” puts it this way: “Students who are chronically absent – meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year – are at serious risk of falling behind in school.”

HB 236, the Attendance for Success Act, passed in the New Mexico Legislature and was signed by the governor. HB 236 aims to prevent absences and calls for earlier intervention for students who are absent or chronically absent. The bill also calls for specialized support and referrals for children and families. One of the most significant goals of this legislation is the introduction of chronic absenteeism into New Mexico’s state law. Currently, the Compulsory Attendance Law in New Mexico only outlines habitual truancy, defined as 10 or more unexcused absences. In my district, it is the excused absences that are often the problem. Changing the law to focus on all absences, not just unexcused, is a good start. It will allow districts to reform outdated attendance policies and practices.

HB 236 also covers the mandatory use of an Early Warning System and the enforcement of attendance improvement plans. However, districts will still bear most of the financial burden in enforcing the new law. I’m hopeful implementation of this bill will help districts enforce attendance policies that are based on the best interests of the student and create better support systems to help families get students to school. We cannot expect the parents to do this alone when there are extenuating circumstances.

Attendance policies that have worked in other states have included notifying parents after the third or fifth unexcused absence and requiring parents to meet with school administration. That way if the family needs help, it can be addressed at the meeting. If the parent fails to meet with the school they are fined, referred to the court or both.

Absenteeism and chronic absenteeism are problems we need to address in our communities and the state as a whole. We want to hold our students to high expectations, and one of those expectations is they show up for school. If there is something getting in the way of that, let’s fix it together.

Ruth Gallegos is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.

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