Maryland schools seek answers to address chronic absenteeism

If a high school student in the United States misses 10 days of school a year, they could have an 85 percent chance of graduating.

Twenty days, a 65 percent chance.

Thirty days, a 49 percent chance.

According to the Johns Hopkins 2012 educational report “Skipping to Nowhere,” student absences not only add up, but can have a huge impact on a student’s future.

While students think missing a few days here and there will go unnoticed, school counselors are seeing the effects firsthand.

In an effort to better address chronic absenteeism, some educators are hoping to limit the number of students counselors can monitor during a school year.

In Focus | Baltimore City's truancy court takes a holistic approach to dealing with chronic absenteeism in schools. Thursday at 6 p.m.

Over the last 10 years, the caseload for public school counselors has continued to grow, nearly doubling in many districts, said Jeremy Goldman, president-elect of the Maryland Counselors association.

Goldman said that an average counselor should monitor as maximum of 250 students.

Sometimes it’s as many as 400.

With a growing caseload, counselors are also finding themselves taking on additional school duties, which can limit their time to work on student needs.

We’re talking things like bus duty, covering classes, or test coordination,” he said. “Counselors are not doing what they are trained to do- what the students need them to do.”

Limited time has also left some counselors grappling to deal with concerns of student absenteeism.

“It’s our job to work through and set goals, to be that support,” Goldman said. “If we can’t address why a student regularly skips school, we have a chance of losing them.”

When a student shows signs of repeated absenteeism, it’s the counselor’s role to come in and address the situation and consult with key resources to come up with a specialized plan to help resolve the issue.

With an increased workload, that special attention is many times compromised, Goldman said.

During the Maryland General Assembly, Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery County, introduced HB-571, proposing the limit the caseloads of counselors to just 250.

“I found that counselors weren’t being utilized in the best way,” she said. “Especially with helping students stay in school.”

The legislation, would allow schools to implement a plan to phase in the caseloads by 2020, adding $5.5 million to the state’s educational budget.

Even though the legislation did not pass, Kaiser hopes to keep the issue on the forefront of educational research so she can bring the issue up again at next year’s session.

For a student that continues to miss school, chronic absenteeism can lead to bigger consequences, including jail time for parents or dropping out of school altogether.

According to research conducted by Johns Hopkins University professor Robert Balfanz, in the last  school year, 11 percent, or 85,188 Maryland students, missed 10 percent of the school year.

“That’s something we don’t want to see at all,” said Barbara Babb, coordinator of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts Truancy Court Program. “We want students to graduate, that means finding the reason why they aren’t in school.”

If a student is habitually absent from school, the truancy court takes a holistic approach to dealing with absenteeism through 10 weekly in-school meetings with the student and other counterparts.

To date, it’s had a success rate of 70 percent of keeping children in school.

Goldman hopes more attention can be brought to the role a counselor plays in a student’s education.

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