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One in three black students was chronically absent from school during the 2013-14 school year, according to a Madison School District report.

Thirty-six percent of the district’s black students have an attendance rate lower than 90 percent. That corresponds to missing, on average, one half day of school every week, or 18 days during the year. The rate has remained steady for the past three school years.

Overall, 20 percent of students were chronically absent last school year, up from 19 percent during the two previous school years, according to the report, which was presented to the School Board on Monday. The district’s total attendance rate was 93 percent.

Nearly one in three students from low-income households was chronically absent compared to one in 10 students who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and board members said the data illustrate the need to further emphasize school attendance — especially as the district seeks to close the achievement gap between white and minority students and as it works to increase academic rigor in middle and high schools.

“On average the district does pretty well, but we have subgroups that we simply need to be sure they are in school more,” said James Howard, board vice president. “You can’t learn if you’re not in school — it’s just that simple.”

The district and the United Way of Dane County are in their second year of a campaign — called Here! — that is focused on improving attendance rates of kindergarten students, and to communicate good attendance habits at a young age.

Jessica Hankey, the district’s director of strategic partnerships and innovation, said volunteers will be at schools when the year begins to distribute literature about good attendance. The flier shows nine or fewer absences are satisfactory and 10 to 17 absences should be considered warning signs for students and families.

School Board president Arlene Silveira said the data shows why communicating the importance of attendance is especially critical in the early grades.

“It’s a matter of talking with the parents, trying to help them to understand how important attendance is at those early ages because these kids can so quickly fall behind and then it gets so much more difficult to get ahead,” she said.

Cheatham said strategies being deployed at seven elementary schools with high rates of kindergarten absenteeism include home visits, attendance breakfasts and walking school bus activities.

Data varies by race

The report shows 12 percent of white students were chronically absent each of the last three school years. Twenty-one percent of Hispanic students were absent last year, up from 18 percent during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.

The rate at which Pacific Islander students were chronically absent shot up during the last school year to 42 percent — the highest of all student groups — from 20 and 22 percent the previous two school years.

Native American students had a rate of 30 percent, compared to 31 and 24 percent during the 2012-13 and 2011-12 school years, respectively.

There are considerably fewer students in those group s, however, which accounts for larger swings, the report noted.

High schools had the highest rate of absent students — peaking at 35 percent of juniors coming to school less than 90 percent of the time, according to the report. Students in 4-year-old kindergarten and kindergarten also had higher rates of absence than students in grades 1 through 8.

If a student is absent without notifying the school, officials work with the student or family to improve attendance and pinpoint reasons for the absences, such as not having transportation to school, according to district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson.

When a student reaches five unexcused absences, a formal letter is sent home, she said.

La Follette High School is expected to show significant reductions in student absences on the 2013-14 state report cards after the Department of Public Instruction deducted 5 points on the 2012-13 cards for the school’s absentee rate, said Alex Fralin, assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

Fralin said the school studied the way it recorded absences and also made school-wide efforts to keep students interested in attending school.

Transportation is a significant barrier for some students, said Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson. Club officials have noticed that poor students move often, which could contribute to transportation issues. Johnson said the club transports 400 students to school every week, some of them homeless.

Engagement is another factor, he said.

“They have to look at who are those kids missing school and how do you make sure they feel encouraged and engaged to want to come,” said Johnson.

“If kids feel defeated and they are struggling in school (or) they don’t feel that somebody cares about them and they are looked at like a failure, they ultimately stop coming.”

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the Boys and Girls Club transportation program.

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