Tuesday | October 17, 2017
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Schools in Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area on a mission to lower student absenteeism

Schools in the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area are making a push this year to reduce the number of days students are absent from class.

The complex area is the first in the state to use Challenge 5, a campaign that encourages students to strive for fewer than five absences in the school year.

Challenge 5 began several years ago at a school district in Grand Rapids, Mich. It’s credited for lowering the Grand Rapids district’s chronic absenteeism rate — defined in Hawaii as 15 or more absences in an academic year — throughout a three-year period by 25 percent.

“Chronic absenteeism has historically been an issue throughout our complex area … our school included,” said Brad Asakura, counselor at Keonepoko Elementary School where the idea to implement Challenge 5 on the Big Island began. “One thing we struggle with is a lot of transiency — kids transfer up to Keaau or to Mountain View before returning (back to Keonepoko). So the attractive thing about having something like this — a positive attendance initiative — is to give our kids common goals, no matter which school they go to.

“We really wanted to get the kids excited about school and also give our community and parents something to latch onto and to really work with us in improving school attendance.”

Big Island schools have a higher rate of chronic absenteeism than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. During the 2015-16 school year, Hilo-Waiakea schools averaged a 13.8 percent chronic truancy rate, followed by West Hawaii schools at 18.9 percent. Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa schools’ chronic absenteeism rate averaged 31.33 percent, among the highest in the state. Statewide the average was about 13 percent.

Research shows missing school impacts learning. Students who are chronically absent in elementary school are statistically less likely to be proficient in math and reading and also are more likely to eventually drop out of high school.

“A single absence becomes a day-and-a-half of missing school because they’re out of school for a day, and when they come back, they have to spend time playing catch up,” Asakura said. “So along with missing stuff, they have to work double-time and extra hard.”

“Research tells us, around 15 days is where we start seeing a huge fall out in learning,” added Chad Keone Farias, superintendent of the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area. “So it creates this disparity and gap. And over a course of time, the likelihood of success (drops).”

Challenge 5 calls for schools to ramp up support for students in danger of being chronically absent, Farias said, though schools can choose to do so in various ways.

For example, Mountain View Elementary School Principal Wilma Roddy said earlier this month the school was looking at ways to help transport students who might struggle to get to school.

At Keonepoko, counselors will continue a “sunshine club” in which they regularly check in with students who struggle with attendance and will continue to make home visits to families where transportation to school is an issue, Vice Principal Christine Lally-Gealon said.

Keonepoko publicized Challenge 5 to students during an assembly on the first day of school and also has leveraged social media to get the word out to parents and students.

The school thinks it could take a few years to show lasting change, though early numbers show reason to be optimistic.

“Yesterday, we had a 97 percent (daily attendance) rate,” Lally-Gealon said. “Normally, (daily attendance) is in the 91 percent range. So we’ve never had that.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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