Getting There: Why Do Milwaukee Students Miss School?

May 9, 2016

The word ‘truancy’ has one, clear definition: "the act or condition of being absent without permission." Some refer to it as ‘playing hooky.’ It’s also called absenteeism. Whichever way you spin it, it means you’re not showing up for classes.

When Dexter Weaver was a kid, as far as school was concerned, truancy was a four-letter-word.

“I had to go to school unless I was bleeding, or vomiting - a lot!” Weaver jokes. “Other than that, I was in school.”

Weaver now lives in St. Louis, but he grew up in Milwaukee Public Schools. He graduated from Riverside High School and then UW-Milwaukee. When he finished his degree, he went right back into the MPS system for his first job as a guidance counselor.

tru an cy (n.) The act or condition of being absent without permission.

As an adult in the building, Weaver got a whole new perspective. One thing he noticed: not every kid was as vigilant as he had been.

“Yes, attendance was an issue,” Weaver recalls. “So, you do the best you can to get the kids to come to school. Administration might ask you to call home, you might have to assist a social worker, [go on] home visits.”

During the 2014-15 school year, schools across Wisconsin averaged about 95 percent attendance. MPS set 95 percent as its goal at the start of this school year. Last year, the district finished at 89 percent.

So, if districts got attendance “grades,” MPS would be looking at a solid ‘B.’ Yet school officials tell me anything less than an ‘A’ is not acceptable. Low attendance means the student can fall behind, sometimes irreparably.

 

So, where are the kids who don’t show up to school?

“Often a child at that age is missing because of challenges that his or her family is facing,” says Cecelia Leong. She’s the associate director for programs for Attendance Works, a national initiative to promote awareness of the importance of school attendance.  

Leong says there are cases where students are just plain no-shows – usually, those are older kids in middle or high school, who have made their own decision. But so many other things can play a role.

“They may be homeless, they may have asthma, they may be facing transportation problems,” Leong lists. “None of these are willful, negative acts by a young child, but they are a significant barrier to getting to school every day.”

LINK: See the state of Wisconsin’s rules about school attendance

Kids whose families are struggling economically can be particularly at risk, according to author Matthew Desmond. He wrote the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which focuses on families in Milwaukee.

In an interview with Wisconsin Public Television, Desmond explained that if a kid’s family gets kicked out, school can fall to the wayside. 

“We know that families relocate to worse neighborhoods and worse housing after their eviction,” Desmond said. “And that’s leaving a really deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”

Dexter Weaver can attest to those problems. He remembers cases during his time in MPS when he simply couldn’t get ahold of parents to figure out why their kids weren’t in school.

He remembers calling families on the home phone number listed, only to be met with a signal the line had been disconnected. He says it happened more often than was expected.

“Every once in a while, you might hear a student say, ‘we don’t have a phone right now,’” Weaver recounts. “People’s situations, economically, you don’t know what’s going on. Some people are doing things, trying their best to survive and things happen, that’s just life.”

“As educators, we feel bad, because we know it’s better for a kid to be stable,” he adds.

 

So, what can schools do to provide some stability or support to improve the chances that kids attend classes regularly?

Next, we explore some successful attempts in other cities and states.