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Commentary: School attendance should be a high priority

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There used to be a time when we wouldn’t dare miss school unless it was an emergency. Attending it was a priority. We relished having perfect attendance, for which we would receive accolades and other rewards. In some regards, achieving perfect attendance ranked just as high as receiving outstanding academic marks because it exemplified dedication.

For far too many, that is no longer the case. Student absenteeism is a major problem, according to the findings of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. During the 2015-16 school year, several years before the pandemic, more than 7 million students missed 15 or more days of school. That is about 16% of the student population. About 800 school districts across the country reported that 30% of their students missed at least three weeks of school.

COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, which is understandable to a degree. The last couple years—the uncertainty, fear, and need to prevent transmission of the virus—have been very difficult for families. However, as the data show, even before the pandemic, it was clear that far too many students were missing days of school that they should not have been.

The implications are far-reaching. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students with chronic absenteeism are more likely to drop out of school and have poor grades.

The problem gets worse as the students grow older. Chronic absenteeism is more pronounced in high school, affecting about 1 in 5 students. When they leave high school, these same students are more likely to live in poverty, have poor health, and become involved in the criminal justice system.

Student attendance should be prioritized once again. School districts across the country have strict guidelines to follow with regards to student attendance. The Every Student Succeeds Act signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 requires school districts to report five indicators of school performance, including one nonacademic indicator: Many schools chose chronic absenteeism.

However, the problem is not something only schools can solve. While schools can incentivize student attendance, put together committees to study and address it, and have officials visit the homes of students, parents are the ones who set the stage for instilling the value of hard work. And attending school every day is evidence of it.

America’s labor force needs a citizenry that believes in hard work. In 1990, labor force participation rates were near 65% for individuals age 16 to 24, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 2002, those numbers have continued to decrease, save for a few years when there was a slight increase.

It’s time to expect more from our youths. Having them come to school every day, unless they are sick, can affect the quality of their life when they get older. It’s essential that authority figures such as parents have conversations with youths about the broad implications of each decision that youths make as it relates to building resiliency and establishing good habits for the future.

Development of a strong work ethic in our youths is essential to improving their lives and America’s labor force. After all, “a dream does not become a reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work,” as former Secretary of State Colin Powell once said. We want our youths to dream big and be whatever they want to in life. If we emphasize the value of hard work, it makes achieving those dreams more possible.

So, this school year, parents, let’s make attending school a priority.

Jerald McNair is a school administrator at South Holland Illinois School District 151.


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