Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Kids missing school. . .

Absenteeism from school is hardly new nor is it only a problem today.  That said, absenteeism in public schools is becoming chronic, affecting nearly 70 percent of the highest poverty school locations.  This is triple what it was prior to the pandemic.  In schools located in poverty areas, some reported as much as a third of the student body as chronically absent (that means missing at least 10% of the days in the school calendar-- about twice monthly or more).  It is clear that prior to the pandemic school attendance was the accepted norm by all but this is not the case now.  Even in school in affluent areas, absenteeism has increased 3-4%.  Using Ohio as an example, chronic absenteeism hit 30 percent in the 2021-22 school year -- up from about 17 percent of the students the full year prior to the pandemic.  In some states, notably California and New Mexico, the rate of chronic absenteeism has hovered at double what it was before the Covid.

It is clear that screens is no substitute for in person classes and that the screens have been a negative effect not only upon the academic standards of our schools but also the way in which some students and families view education.  We all know that the schools are already overburdened with noneducational responsibilities -- from socialization to making up for things missing at home to the indoctrination of the current social mores concerning sexual desire, gender, racism, etc.  We also already know that we struggle to find qualified and effective teachers and that the teachers there are leaving their jobs at higher rates than before.  Now it is clear that a significant portion of students in public schools are finding excuses simply to opt out and this will only increase the distance between the haves and have nots in our society.  Further, those who drop out are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system along the way.

The problem is not money.  We are spending far more than we have ever spent per pupil.  The problem is not simply the family -- although this is certainly a contributing factor.  Could it be that part of the problem is that schools are trying to do too much and too much of what we have asked them to do has little or nothing to do with their educational task?  We feed students who come to school hungry.  We try to mirror what is missing in their family life through social programs in the school.  We use the time in school to promote a largely progressive and liberal view of everything from pot to sex.  We are sensitive to their feelings and have done everything in our power to make for a pleasant environment.  Maybe we are trying too hard to do other things and not hard enough to accomplish the educational task that was and should remain the primary focus.  

Home schooling, parochial, and private schools are competitive in part because they are stronger on the academic part of things than public schools.  Indeed, some religious schools are broadening their appeal beyond their faithful precisely because they have higher academic standards.  It does not hurt that they have an investment in the educational enterprise as well.  This could become a lesser factor as vouchers and other programs make more choices available to those with fewer financial resources.

There is another factor.  The chronic absentees are not only missing out on an education, they are also missing out on the shared experience and the community that schools provide.  This undoubtedly contributes to such youth being more involved in the justice system but it also deprives them of one of the most commonly shared experiences of life -- school and graduation.  While everyone should be first of all concerned with the education they are missing, it is a good thing when students interact within the educational community to share a common experience and to appreciate the differences that need not divide.

Kids missing school is hardly a new thing.  The increase in absenteeism and its chronic condition especially manifest among the poor can only be bad news on a variety of fronts.  But this could be a real opportunity.  Private schools, especially parochial schools (whether classical or not), have always excelled in working closer with the parents and families to address problems and encourage the students to opt in rather than opt out of the program.  Yet the great temptation to religious schools will be to focus on this even more than the one distinctive of Christian witness, faith, and life.  This catechesis is and should always be the heart and core of our identity and not simply window dressing.  That said, this is one more reminder that over all the public educational system in America has been struggling and the pandemic has only drawn even more attention to its failings. 

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