When I was hired, I was told that one school-wide goal was to improve attendance. As I stood in the hallway, looking at a bulletin board that illustrated the attendance goal of 80%, I remember thinking, “You mean attendance is lower than 80%? Certainly we should be able to improve that.”
I mean, I did get hired in July of 2020, the summer after much of the country was sent home from school, but when I mentioned that, the hiring agent said that attendance had always been a problem — even before Covid.
This was puzzling to me.
Most of the schools I had taught in prior to 2020 had had a few students who struggled with attendance, a few who for whatever reason — chronic illness, anxiety, trauma, family issues — had difficulty getting to school every day, but most of the schools I’d taught in regularly had higher than 90% attendance. Most of my students have come to school, so what is it, I wondered, that keeps 20-30% of kids from coming to this school every day. Certainly those numbers couldn’t be accurate.
But guys, they are accurate.
During my first year, attendance was a struggle. All of my students were at home with not much else to do, and they all had Chromebooks so that they could log in to virtual school, but some had poor wifi, some had the power cut off from time to time, some were in charge of caring for younger children or were needed to provide transportation for parents or other family members. Some were sick. Some just couldn’t will themselves to join online instruction.
When we returned to the building last September, I thought, “now attendance will improve,” but it just hasn’t. Some students stayed home in the beginning of the year because they were still wary of Covid, some got Covid, some had to stay home to care for family members, some had to go to work, and some had been away from school so long, they just didn’t care any more. They just couldn’t find the will to get up and get to school.
All year long, I’ve taken attendance and posted the percentage present on the white board in the front of the room. Surely my efforts to build relationships, to reward hard work, to acknowledge growth, and to celebrate wins would bring students to school. If I posted the percentages we could all watch them rise, and we could celebrate that, too, but they haven’t risen. On a typical day I’ve seen between 67 and 79% attendance. In the course of this entire school year, I’ve had one class period with 100% attendance. That’s one period of one day for this whole school year.
Why so low?
One of the biggest factors is transportation. Our school provides bus transportation, but students might miss the bus if they oversleep or if they aren’t willing to walk to the stop in inclement weather. And, the bus may be their only option; not all of our families have access to a vehicle.
Another factor is family responsibility. I have at least two students who regularly miss sleep or school (or both) because they are caring for younger siblings while a parent is at work, and if that gets in the way of schooling, so be it.
Illness also keeps students away from school. We still have kids testing positive, and we have also had more students coming down with common ailments like colds and flus than we had when everyone was consistently masking.
Work is also a factor. If a student has to choose between going to work to earn money to pay their bills and coming to school, work is going to win almost every time.
But probably one of the biggest factors that keeps my students chronically out of school is trauma. It’s hard for me to know the specific ways that trauma impacts each of my students, but they do give me a glimpse from time to time. I know that one of my students watched her older brother get killed in a drive by shooting a couple of years ago. I have many students who have lost a sibling or parent to illness or violence. I have students who have been sexually assaulted, students who have been or are currently homeless, and students who have witnessed all manner of violence.
Do you think that gets in the way of them coming to school? Of course it does.
Because of this awareness, I am careful not to give students a hard time for missing class. I try to just be genuinely happy to see them whenever they actually do make it.
Recently I had two young men go absolutely MIA. It started during our last virtual stint. They didn’t log in to the zoom room for the entire month. I wasn’t surprised — honestly, if my school would have moved to a virtual platform in the final months of my senior year, I don’t know if I would’ve logged in. Anyway, when we returned to school on May 2, these two young men did not return. Not the first day; not the first week. Not even the second week.
Finally this past week, one showed up on Wednesday and the other on Friday.
In the past — at one of my other schools — I might’ve made a sarcastic comment like, “Nice of you to join us,” or something like that, but not here. Here I see them coming down the hall, I smile, I call them by name, and I say, “It’s so good to see you.”
Then, when I get a moment, I pull them aside, and I say, “So, how are you doing, what’s been going on?”
Both of these young men answered the same way, “I got put out. I had to go live somewhere else. I don’t live close to the bus route, and I don’t have any way to get here.” Two months before graduation, their families put them out. Yeah, they probably broke the rules. They were probably disrespectful. They probably had multiple warnings, but now what are they supposed to do?
They are supposed to pick up starting right now and do their best — even after six weeks of absence. And do you know what? Both of them did.
One of them came to my room over lunch on Friday. He was sitting next to a young woman who had also missed some school. They were listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime on Audible so that they could respond to a discussion post that was worth a test grade.
Both of these students sat listening, looking on the same book together, desks pushed side by side. They listened quietly to the whole chapter, then worked on their posts. The young man finished and headed out. When the young woman finished, she asked, “Can I take this book home?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Ok, because I won’t be here tomorrow.”
“You won’t be here tomorrow?”
“No. It’s my brother’s funeral.”
I moved closer, “Your brother’s funeral? What happened?”
“He was shot a couple of weeks ago.”
“He was shot?! Have you told anyone else here at school?”
“Can I hug you?”
“Yes,” she laughed, “Mrs. Rathje, you can hug me.”
“I’m getting emotional. I am so sorry.”
“Yeah. It’s been a little rough.”
It’s been a little rough. Her dad died during the Covid shut down, and her brother was killed two weeks ago.
Two young men were put out of their houses.
Our entire school moved to virtual two months before graduation.
And Saturday night, a white supremacist drove into a highly segregated area of Buffalo, NY, walked into a grocery store and shot 13 people, eleven of them Black. Ten of those people died.
And that kind of news — like the news of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other senseless Black fatalities — is a trauma for my students who have already in their 17 or 18 years experienced more than their share of trauma. Trauma upon trauma upon trauma.
So, you know, sometimes rolling out of bed first thing in the morning, getting dressed, and walking to the bus isn’t front of mind. The connection between attendance, academic preparedness, and future success can seem irrelevant when you aren’t sure where you are living, if you are safe, or if someone you love is about to be gunned down while they are getting their groceries.
So if you’ve got the will, the resiliency, the wherewithal, the cojones to get to my classroom today, you can be damn sure I’m gonna clap you in, support you, and maybe even give you a hug. I’m gonna do whatever I can to make sure you feel safe, secure, and loved inside my classroom for as long as you are in attendance.
What else can I do?
How long, O Lord, will you look on?Psalm 35:17a