Report: 16 percent of Rhode Island kindergarteners missed at least 18 days of school last year

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Sixteen percent of all kindergarten students in the state missed at least 18 days of the 2013-14 school year, according to new findings from a children's advocacy agency.

Rhode Island Kids Count said Monday the rate of chronic absenteeism is high in kindergarten and lower in early elementary school. It rises again in middle and high school, reaching a high of 28 percent for high school seniors.

"There is a sense of urgency that we really need to turn these numbers around as fast as possible," said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the agency's executive director. "When you have chronic absenteeism in the early grades, it can really predict that those students are not going to do as well in their school careers."

The findings were based on a review of data from the Rhode Island Department of Education. They were released in an event with educators, policy makers and community leaders, co-sponsored by Rhode Island Kids Count, the Rhode Island Data Sharing Project and a data analyst group, the Providence Plan.

The same percentage of kindergarten students was chronically absent the previous school year, said Stephanie Geller, a policy analyst at Rhode Island Kids Count.

It's a concern because students who do not attend kindergarten regularly do worse in reading and math through the seventh grade, get into the habit of missing school and are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade, Geller said.

A review of national testing data recently found that students who miss more school than their peers consistently score lower on standardized tests.

Teachers may have to adjust the curriculum to help these students keep up, which can disrupt the rest of the class, Geller said.

Bryant said greater effort is needed at the state and community levels to address root causes of absenteeism, particularly housing and health issues for low-income children. Nineteen percent of low-income students in kindergarten through third-grade were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year, compared to 5 percent of their higher-income peers.

Rhode Island Kids Count is also recommending that schools and districts compile frequent reports on student absenteeism to help educators notice patterns, so they can reach out to parents early. Twelve percent of Rhode Island first graders, 10 percent of second graders, and 10 percent of third graders missed at least 18 days during the 2013-14 school year.

A 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University estimated the national rate of chronic absenteeism was 10 percent, and could be as high as 15 percent.

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