OKEECHOBEE — It appears the attendance woes that affected Okeechobee and other schools around the nation last year have continued into the new year.
Twenty-one percent of Okeechobee students had nine or more unexcused absences last year, a total of 1,275 students. At the elementary level 14 percent of students had a high rate of absences last year.
The district said 12 percent or 711 students were absent at least 21 days last year.
So far, during the first 18 days of school, 42 percent of Okeechobee students have missed at least one day of school.
Director of Student Services Toni Wiersma said if children don’t show up for school regularly, they miss out on fundamental reading and math skills and the chance to build a habit of good attendance that will carry them into college and careers.
The school board last week passed a proclamation that designates September as Attendance Awareness Month.
“All statistics show that when students are in school they will learn,” she noted. “Last year 12 percent of students missed more than 21 days of school.”
This earned the student the label of chronically absent.
Mrs. Wiersma said she is not sure of the causes for the increase in absences.
She said 8 percent of elementary school students were chronically absent last year.
She said parents must send in notes to explain absences, because some are for legitimate health reasons.
“Attendance is one of our top priorities. We feel that if students attend they will learn and be able to pass their classes and get promoted,” she said.
The district plans to do a lot of publicity this year to raise awareness in the community. They’ll be placing information on school websites, on social media, a banner in Flagler Park to record the number of absences, and hold a competition among schools to award schools with better attendance.
“Education should be a priority. Parents need to encourage their kids to be in school,” she continued.
Mrs. Wiersma said start times are not a factor. Elementary schools start at 8:30 and middle schools at 9 a.m.
Okeechobee’s stats are better than some school districts in Florida and similar to other districts in the Heartland area.
She noted Okeechobee High School holds different events and fun activities to try and encourage kids to attend regularly.
Part of the reason could be the economy. Many families are in single-parent households. Often that parent has to work more than one job.
“We know it is difficult on some parents,” she said. “We want to avoid these problems in the future. If kids graduate with a skill, perhaps in our career programs, they can make a good living wage.”
A California study found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were far less likely to read proficiently at the end of the third grade.
Facts show that students who do not read on grade level at the end of third grade are retained. Being retained in third grade increases the chance of a student dropping out of school later.
The study showed 64 percent of students will read on grade level after the third grade if they miss nine or fewer days in kindergarten and first grade.
Some 36 percent of students will not read on grade level.
The study found 43 percent of students will read on grade level at the end of third grade if they miss more than nine days in both kindergarten and first grade. This means 57 percent of students will not.
Forty-one percent of students read on grade level if they miss more than 18 days of school in either kindergarten or first grade and 59 percent will not.
Some 17 percent of students will read on grade level at the end of third grade if they miss more than 18 days of instruction in both kindergarten and first grade. And, 83 percent of students will not.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News