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Nearly 17% of students chronically absent in Washington, one of highest rates in U.S.

SEATTLE — The state of Washington has one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the country, with 16.9% of students listed as chronically absent.

September is attendance month and school districts across the state have been focusing on sending a message to students and parents as the first month of the school year wraps up.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% — or 18 or more school days — each year for any reason. Those includes both excused and unexcused absences. Missing as little as two days a month can compound into a student becoming chronically absent and districts say that impacts student learning in a big way.

Posters along the hallways at the Federal Way School District educate parents, students and staff on why attendance is critical for graduation and succeeding academically.

One poster says if a child misses one day, it takes an average of three days to catch up. Missing three or more school days a month can set a student back one to two full years of learning.

“A student who misses 10 days or more of school is 20% less likely to graduate and 25% less likely to even enroll in college; so that speaks to the importance of our students attending class every day so they can cross the graduation stage so they can enroll in college and be successful and then onto the world of work,” said Kassie Swenson, chief of communications and strategy at the Federal Way School District.

She says in their district; chronic absenteeism rates go up with the grade levels.

State data from the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction shows some of the largest districts in the Puget Sound area have wide variations in absenteeism rates.

The Federal Way School District has one of the highest rates, with nearly one in four students chronically absent during the 2016-2017 school year.

The data also shows a correlation between lower income areas and higher rates of absenteeism.

On the east side, at the Lake Washington School District, which has one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism in the state at 8.8% for the 2016-2017 school year, Matt Gillingham, the director of student services at the district, says even though their rates may be low, it is still a concern.

“It’s a snowball effect, a couple of absences starts making it more difficult to come back to school and it start makes it easier to stay away from school,” said Gillingham.

He says in the Lake Washington School District, students in high school and the lower elementary grades have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism.

“Students who are chronically absent before third grade are missing key foundational skills in math and reading that they’re going to use the rest of their educational career,” said Gillingham.

The reasons behind the high rates in Washington are complex. The districts and state say there’s many reasons contributing to it.

“Some of it can be challenges that families are going through, some it can be anxiety that students have regarding school or other things, and some -- it can be not recognizing the importance of school until it’s too late,” said Gillingham.

Both the Federal Way and Lake Washington school districts say they have a number of resources for families who are having challenges with absences. They work to provide community partnerships to help families navigate the challenges they have, whether it’s transportation or other needs.

Ultimately, the district’s say lowering the numbers will be a result of parents, students and schools working together to raise attendance awareness and keep students in school.