Schools across McPherson County have strong teachers and curriculum, but these resources won’t be very effective when the students aren’t at school.

The issue is chronic absenteeism. This isn’t truancy, which is defined by state statute and applies only to unexcused absences.

Instead, chronically absent students miss a day or two a time, which adds up. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a student who misses two days a month, or 18 days a year, has missed 10 percent of the school year and is considered to be chronically absent.

“If kids are missing that kind of time, we see their learning plummet,” said Angie McDonald, director of teaching and learning for USD 418. “We’re trying to do so much more than academics that things like citizenship and C3 take a back seat. It truly interferers with the kid’s well-rounded education, the whole child. When they’re not here, it’s hard to educate them.”

According to research from USDE, students who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read on grade level by the third grade. In turn, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school. According to Attendance Works, nationwide about 10 percent of students in elementary school and kindergarten are chronically absent.

Because of this, starting the culture of learning early is important.

“If I’ve taught my 8-year-old that it’s OK to whine about not feeling well every day, they could start on a negative path for when they actually are in charge of getting themselves to school. If I teach my child that going to school is important, then when he starts walking to middle school or driving himself to high school, he’ll be less likely to fall into absenteeism,” McDonald explained. “When they’re little, we can help them and their families see the importance of attending school.”

Schools across the county vary in how absenteeism is addressed — ranging from changes in absence policy to changing school hours — but in any district, everyone must work together to keep kids at school.

“Ultimately, students are here for their education and they have an eligibility policy as well so grades are of the upmost importance. A good percentage of our teachers are also coaches so they understand,” said Ky Swisher, assistant principal of Smoky Valley High School. “We don’t count school activities, whether its sports, scholars bowl or music because it’s an extension of the classroom. It does become challenging in the spring when there’s a lot of games or events going on. The expectation teachers place on students is for them to keep up on their assignments.”

Most schools have policies concerned with excused absences — medical appointments, school activities, religious observances — but time is lost, regardless.

Research performed by Attendance Works shows a student who misses more than 10 percent of the school year can lose up to a year or more of progress in math. Students with more absences displayed skill levels one to two years below their peers on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

The best solution McDonald sees is to build up a positive outlook of school. Of course, correcting a culture of absenteeism won’t be easy.

“It’s been on everyone’s radar for a while, but I think as poverty has increased, there are times that kids are having a harder time getting to school for whatever reason. At the elementary level, it’s not the kids getting to school, its the families getting kids to school,” McDonald explained. “Kids taking off for hair appointments has been happening since I was a kid, so that has been going on forever, but that’s not always the reason why they’re not here. We’re learning a lot about the different aspects involved. It’s not just one thing happening for every kid.”

Hours at McPherson High School changed this year so students would have more free hours that would otherwise be lost to afternoon activities. This change allows 35 percent more students to catch their sixth- and seventh-hour classes during spring semester, when many students travel for sports, band competitions and other school activities.

Now, schools in McPherson County have preventative measures, like sending home letters after a student misses anywhere from eight to 12 days of school.

“We draw the line at being absent eight or more days and our board considers that excessive absenteeism. At that point, we look at placing a student on an attendance contract that more clearly outlines expectations for absences, like requiring a doctor’s note to validate the absence,” Swisher said. “Once a student is put on that list, absences do tend to go down because it holds them more accountable to being at school.”

That accountability, plus investment in each student’s education, could make all the difference.

Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at cderksen@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.