Dubuque schools working harder to keep young kids in class - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Dubuque schools working harder to keep young kids in class

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The Dubuque Community School District is ramping up its efforts to keep kids from missing school.

This is a problem that impacts all grade levels, but the district is focusing specifically on students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.

"If they can't read proficiently by third grade, there's a lot of research to show they're in danger of not graduating on time," the district's director of student services, Shirley Horstman, said.

Last school year, the district started tracking the attendance of all students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.

District officials found Title I schools -- in other words, schools with a high number of children from low-income families -- had the highest rate of kids missing class.

The problem's official name is "chronic absenteeism," defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year. In Dubuque, that's at least 18 days.

"If you miss 18 days of pre-school followed by another 18 days in kindergarten followed by another 18 days in first grade, they have missed almost three months -- or a third of a full school year over a three-year period," Horstman said.

Five of Dubuque's 13 elementary schools are Title 1 schools, where the average rate of chronic absenteeism is 12 percent. The average rate for the other eight schools is just 3 percent.

Donna Loewen is principal at Lincoln Elementary in Dubuque, which had the district's second highest rate of chronic absenteeism. Last school year, 17 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through third grade were chronically absent.

"Parent education is a huge factor in the success of kids getting to school on time. Young children do not set out to be late to school," Loewen said. "It has to do with organization in the home, how much."

She said many students' low socio-economic status plays a role in chronic absenteeism.

"Typically, that goes hand-in-hand with more barriers that those students and families face, more risk factors," Loewen said. "There are a variety of issues, from families that may be currently in a homeless state, moving from place to place, multiple families living together, that can play into it. Parents' work schedules have an impact."

Chronic absenteeism, she said, impacts, "many hard-working families, who may still find themselves in the throes of poverty, who are squeezing out every minute of the day that they can and not much is left for tending to things that will support students' attendance at school."

Steps to solving the problem range from an attendance contract between the school and family to phone calls from teachers to parents.

"(The) classroom teacher contacts the parent to discuss the reasons for the absence, to share the concern that the child's not been there," Loewen explained.

The district is also trying to keep kids in class by putting articles in school newsletters, reinforcing the importance of attendance.

"They are missed when they are gone," Loewen said, "and what they miss is typically pretty critical to their learning."

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