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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Truancy is the 'new normal' -- and a growing business

Tracking down absent students and persuading their parents to get them to school every day is a booming business, writes Alex MacGillis in ProPublica. School districts are contracting with companies that provide "student advocates" willing to go where school staffers fear to tread.


It's more to stay home and play on computers than to go to school. Photo: Amina Filkins

David Heiber's Concentric, which was growing slowly before the Covid shutdowns, has quintupled its staff and "recently received a $5 million investment from a social-venture-capital firm to fuel expansion," MacGillis writes.


“Right place, right time, right pandemic,” Heiber told him.


"Absenteeism underlies . . . falling school achievement, deteriorating mental health — exacerbated by social isolation — and elevated youth violence and car thefts, some occurring during school hours," writes MacGillis.


"Some parents, unimpressed by what instruction consisted of during remote learning, didn’t see missing school as that consequential," he writes. "Some simply liked having their kids around."


Rebuilding the old school-going norm is a "societal" challenge, says Sarah Lenhoff, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University. Families aren't getting the message that it matters.


Inadequate infrastructure had led Detroit to cancel school for several days last year because of excessive heat. Schools had also closed in the face of forecasts of snow that brought no actual snow. Districts get penalized by the state’s funding formula if attendance drops below 75% on any day, and so they may close schools when they fear that too few kids will show up. “If you have that happen often enough, it does erode your feeling that the system is there for us, and not just when it’s convenient for them,” Lenhoff said.

Walking in a Detroit suburb, MacGillis encountered several 15- and 16-year-old boys whose school was closed for plumbing problems, and a middle-school girl whose school was closed for teacher training. He asked the girl's older sister why absenteeism was up.


“That’s what the corona did,” Serenity, who is 21, told me. Now “they’re sending the kids back to school, and they don’t want to no more. They want to stay home and play on their computers.”


School has become optional for many families, writes Fordham's Checker Finn.


“The pandemic did something to change students and families’ relationships with schools," said Paul Kihn, the District of Columbia’s deputy mayor for education in an interview with the Washington Post. "There are a not insignificant number of families that actually don’t think it’s crucial to have their kids in school every day.”


Finn suspects it's not a passing phase, nor does he think schools can make a significant difference by holding pizza parties or threatening parents of chronic truants with fines or jail time.


He'd like schools to focus on mastery rather than butt-on-seat time. "Deploy technology and choice and tutors, mini-schools and micro-schools, part-time schools, schools that meet at odd times and places, smorgasbord schools that one attends (or zooms into) just for the things one still needs to learn," he writes. "Make it all year-round and as much of it as possible 24/7."


Parents probably will want brick-and-mortar elementary schools, he writes, but these can become "more flexible, better attuned to mastery, more engaging, with more options and choices that are better matched to students’ needs, capabilities, and prior achievement."


It would be "hugely disruptive" and widely resisted, he predicts.

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