The state’s education and political leaders, as they scramble to find solutions to Southern Nevada’s chronic teacher shortage, may have overlooked a different problem: How many students miss too much school to actually learn something?
According to the federal government, nearly one in five students who attend public school in the Silver State are chronically absent, a strong and early predictor that a student eventually will drop out.
More than 82,000 students in grades K-12 — 18.1 percent of the state’s total enrollment — missed 15 or more days during the 2013-14 school year, according to an Associated Press analysis of new federal education data. That analysis ranked Nevada with the eighth highest rate of chronic absenteeism among the 50 states and District of Columbia.
The national average was 13 percent, about 6.5 million students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Bob Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Everyone Graduates Center, called that number disturbing.
“If you’re not there, you don’t learn, and then you fall behind. You don’t pass your classes. You don’t get the credits in high school and that’s what leads to dropping out,” Balfanz said in an interview.
The AP found 16.7 percent of white students in Nevada missed 15 or more days of school in 2013-14. That rate increased to 18.4 percent for Hispanic students and 25.1 percent for black students.
On Tuesday, the federal education department for the first time released chronic absentee figures on 99 percent of schools and districts across the U.S.
Of the 100 largest school districts by enrollment, the Clark County School District had the 23rd highest rate of chronic absenteeism. Nearly 19 percent of students, or about 59,000 total, who attend Nevada’s largest district were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year.
Chronic absenteeism in Clark County ranged from 16.9 percent for white students, 18.5 percent for Hispanic students and 25.7 percent for black students.
“If students aren’t in school, one, they’re not learning. And two, many times they’re out doing things they shouldn’t,” said Matt Henne, the district’s former attendance enforcement coordinator. He now oversees the office of expulsion due process.
In his previous position, Henne supervised 20 truancy officers who field nearly 39,000 attendance-related calls each year.
New efforts to combat habitual absences include an online system that parents can use to track their student’s attendance; a state grant that placed nearly 100 social workers in schools; the expansion of a truancy diversion program to more than 80 campuses; and harsh penalties for missing too much school, including confiscation of a student’s driver’s license.
Some schools, like Desert Pines High, where 49.3 percent of students are chronically absent, have partnered with police departments, family and juvenile court services and other community groups to identify and help students with severe attendance problems, Henne said.
“It’s not, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to you.’ It’s, ‘What can we do to help you get to school?’” he added. “It’s not pointing a finger. It’s asking why (and) identifying the resources the school can give you.’”
Meeting basic needs
At Valley High School, where 40.1 percent of students missed 15 or more days of school in 2013-14, Principal Ramona Esparza said her staff try to meet both the academic and basic needs of the diverse student population.
That includes the addition of a new wellness center that will offer vision, dental, immunization and other health services — free of charge — for Valley students and their siblings.
“We’re dealing not only with kids not earning credits but getting them to school, period,” Esparza said.
Whether the student is homeless or a teen parent, works two jobs or lives on their own, “that’s just the way it is,” she added. “People need to understand that we have to teach the whole child, and that may mean we do unconventional things.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Neal Morton at email@example.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter @nealtmorton