Washington state was shamed recently by a federal study showing it has more students chronically missing school than any other state in the nation — only Washington, D.C., scored lower.
It is a disheartening statistic.
But the good news for the Tri-Cities is that we are a bright spot in this dismal picture. Thanks to the foresight of officials at the United Way of Benton & Franklin Counties, our community already is tackling the problem.
In 2013, our regional United Way office joined with local businesses and the Richland, Kennewick and Pasco school districts to launch Attendance Matters.
Making sure kids are getting to class has gotten a renewed emphasis thanks to the initiative, which focuses on the region’s middle schools.
United Way officials have said that once kids start missing class at the high school level, it can be more difficult to reach them. But in middle school there is still time to form good attendance habits and prevent chronic absenteeism, which is the goal.
So posters have gone up in middle schools and around the community, encouraging kids to get to class. Businesses and service organizations have contributed money and coupons totalling 33,000 reward items this past school year.
The Tri-Cities Fever, for example, donated more than 1,200 pairs of game tickets as part of the Attendance Matters rewards program. At Carmichael Middle School in Richland, a buddy system was established so kids watch out for each other and make sure their partner is getting to school.
Looking at data collected so far from United Way, such steps appear to be making some difference.
Student absences decreased by an average of one day per student after the first two years of implementing the program, according to United Way. Also, more students had perfect attendance, with 366 students missing no school in 2014-15. That’s up from 304 students the year before.
Unfortunately, chronic absenteeism is still the greatest challenge, with 45 percent of students missing more than 10 days in the 2014-15 school year, according to United Way officials. That is up from the year before, when 34 percent of students missed more than 10 days.
But at least we have an organization keeping track of our region’s total attendance rates at the middle schools and working to solve the problem. In light of the recent national study, that’s an encouraging footnote to Washington state’s miserable, overall chronic school absenteeism rate.
And the local program has caught the attention of other communities. In May, our United Way office was recognized for that initiative, receiving the Common Good Award at the International United Way Worldwide Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Only nine United Ways, from nearly 1,800 around the world, were recognized for bringing meaningful change to their communities.
Getting kids to attend school is crucial. If they aren’t in class, they aren’t learning and they fall behind. The national average for chronic absenteeism in public schools was 13 percent for the 2013-14 school year, and Washington state was at a disturbing 24.8 percent.
State officials with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction have doubted the national study, saying our state’s chronic absentee rate is probably closer to 15 percent. But even if the state numbers are more accurate, the percentage of kids missing school is still too high.
So while statewide, Washington appears to have a severe problem, in our own region, we have the leadership of United Way and a community approach to try to turn things around.