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From Count Me In’s Web page:

“School attendance matters. Students who miss school frequently end up with gaps in their learning. They are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, and more likely to drop out of school. Missing school, even in kindergarten, has consequences for children. Almost 1,000 Cumberland County elementary students, kindergarten through fifth grade, missed over 10 percent of their school year in each of the last two years.

“Chronic absence is a problem that can be solved when schools, families and communities work together to create a culture of attendance among children as soon as they start school; when we monitor student absence; and when we identify and overcome barriers to getting to school.”


From the Attendance Works Web page:

“Attendance Works is a national and state initiative that promotes awareness of the important role that school attendance plays in achieving academic success starting with school entry. Our goal is to ensure that every district in the country not only tracks chronic absence data, beginning in kindergarten or ideally earlier, but also partners with families and community agencies to intervene when attendance is a problem for children or particular schools.”

LEWISTON — “John Doe,” a 6-year-old first-grader, missed 50 days of school last year.

The odds are high that he’ll drop out of school and end up on welfare like his mother, Superintendent Bill Webster said.

He said too many others are in the same boat, missing so much school because of poor parenting that they aren’t successful in the classroom.

State Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, is hoping to address the issue with a bill that would give school districts the option of mandating school attendance at age 5 instead of 7, which is the current mandatory age. A public hearing on LD 311 was held Thursday in Augusta.

“My bill would give districts the local authority to lower the mandatory age to 5,” Libby said, adding that the change would require a local school board vote. When a first-grader is chronically absent, the district has no recourse, Libby said. “This bill would fix that.”

State law says students must attend school by age 7. That’s too late for a child from a household where parents don’t get their children to school, Webster said.

The case of the Lewiston first-grader illustrates the problem.

Given the school’s knowledge of the student’s family and the number of days he missed, “we were concerned,” Webster said. The School Department reported the issue to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Nothing happened.

“There was further communication with DHHS,” Webster said. The department finally said that because state law does not require attendance until age 7, it would not intervene.

“This is replicated with too many students,” Webster said.

Lewiston’s attendance officer, Butch Pratt, talked to the mother, a single parent. She had other priorities, Webster said. He said he understands a single parent in a poor household is dealing with problems such as not enough food, not enough money to pay rent. But missing school at an early age plants seeds of failure.

“The lack of instilling a regular routine and educational values at this age is going to be with that student for the rest of his life,” Webster said. “That’s really sad.”

Research from Attendance Works showed that students who miss 10 percent of school in kindergarten and first grade were four times more likely not to be proficient in the third grade. Another study showed that more than 50 percent of students who were chronically absent for two years would eventually drop out.

“They’re increasingly behind their peers; they never catch up,” Webster said. When a student misses one day, “you come back the next day and people are talking about what happened yesterday. You’re feeling out of the loop. Maybe there was one new concept introduced in class.  It escalates. It gets worse and worse.”

Last year in Lewiston, 16 percent of kindergarten students and 14 percent of first-graders were chronically absent, or missed 10 percent or more of school.

Despite stepped-up efforts to encourage more children to come to school, this year’s figures are a bit better but too high: 13 percent of kindergarten and 11 percent of first-graders are chronically absent so far this year, Assistant Superintendent Tom Jarvis testified Thursday to the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Chronic absenteeism is not a problem in Cape Elizabeth, Webster said. “It’s a big issue in Lewiston. Maybe it’s bigger here than any other place in the state.”

He’s not talking about young students of “intact families that value education” or parents who home-school. “That is quite different than the family situations I’m talking about,” Webster said.

Changing the law is only one part of what needs to happen, he said.

More alternative programs are needed. More positive feedback must be given to encourage students to want to go to school. Lewiston schools are working to give more outreach and encouragement to chronically absent students, he said.

The district also has started a campaign to provide “a better education of the significance of education,” Webster said. And, “we need to better understand the roadblocks that contribute to children not in school.”

He offered another case.

Last year, he took a mother to Superior Court because her sixth-grader was chronically truant. The court fined the single mother $250 and ruled that the student had to attend the remaining two weeks of school.

“It didn’t happen,” Webster said. “The sad part is this single mother had three other children, two older than the sixth-grader, one who had or was close to dropping out.”

Society has made keeping children with their biological parents a priority, which is laudable, Webster said. But he wondered whether some youngsters would be better off in well-run orphanages where they would get a good education.

Keeping children with parents who lack parenting skills or don’t value education, Webster said, is relegating them to dropping out and going on welfare, and becoming “perhaps our future lawbreakers.”

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