Child and Parent Health Issues Can Lead to Chronic Absenteeism & Impact Student Success

Editor’s Note:  Yesterday we published the first half of our interview with Hedy Chang of Attendance Works. She explained how child and parent health issues can become a barrier to school attendance and future success. Today we conclude the interview.

Hedy Chang
Hedy Chang

Q: Many of the health barriers to attendance that your report mentions are preventable and/or treatable if the child has affordable, quality health care coverage. Can you comment on the importance of affordable, comprehensive health care coverage to supporting children so they can show up for school ready to learn?

A: Access to quality health care is absolutely essential to improving school attendance. When Santa Clara County, California, expanded health coverage to all children, parents reported that both health and school attendance improved.

Access to a good health provider not only means that children and families can manage treatable conditions, such as asthma and tooth decay, it also gives them access to a trusted provider who can help navigate when a child is too sick for school. A doctor or a nurse can deliver the message about the importance of attendance in a far different way than a truant officer or attendance clerk can.

Q: Your organization encourages people to “Think Outside the Classroom” – can you elaborate more on what you mean by that?

Given that so many factors outside the classroom influence absenteeism– health, housing and transportation, to name a few – we can’t expect schools to solve this problem alone. I’ve already talked about the important role that health providers can play. Public health officials can help, using the health data they collect – hospital visits, lead exposure, concentrations of asthma – to identify where students and families need more support.

Beyond health, we’re seeing housing authorities launch attendance initiatives to raise awareness among their tenants, faith leaders organizing volunteers to reach out to families, transit agencies providing free service to students headed to school and businesses contributing prizes for attendance competitions. The whole community can get involved.

Q: Many uninsured children are eligible for Medicaid and CHIP coverage but not enrolled. Do you have any thoughts on how to get more children connected to affordable health coverage?

A: California offers an especially interesting effort to address this solution. Last year, it passed legislation requiring schools to inform families about their health coverage options in the beginning of the year. This All in for Health Campaign , just launched this year, has the potential to make sure uninsured children get the health coverage they deserve. Models that use trusted advisers, such as community health workers, have been successful at enrolling eligible children in health insurance. Some of these models are school-based, others are school-linked or have a partner relationship with a school district.

Q: A report we just released on the long-term benefits of Medicaid found that children with Medicaid coverage are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and grow up to be healthier more financially successful adults. Does that sound consistent with what your research has shown about school absenteeism?

A: We have found that students who miss too much school in the early grades are less likely to read well by the end of third grade, a key milestone for student success. By sixth grade, chronic absence becomes a leading indicator that a student will drop out. A student who is chronically absent any year from 8th through 12th grade is 7.4 times more likely to drop out. And as your report shows, high school dropouts are less likely to lead healthy, productive lives. Given the role that poor health plays in absenteeism, it’s safe to say that health is directly connected to achievement gaps and dropout rates.

Q: Have you done any research on whether the insurance status of parents impacts a child’s school attendance?

A: No. We have not conducted such research ourselves. But, it is well worth exploring since we know poor parental health can contribute to missing school especially for young children who depend upon adults to help them get to class.

Q: Your latest report made a big splash.  What’s next for Attendance Works?

We’re looking forward to some events very soon that will shine a spotlight on districts and states that are doing a good job addressing chronic absenteeism. We just released a list of 200+ superintendents who are tackling this issue by analyzing data, bringing in community partners and using other strategies. We’ll be finding ways to share their stories. Next spring, the federal government will — for the first time — release data showing how many students miss too much school. We’re hoping to equip districts with the tools they need to turn around poor attendance.

Q:  Thanks Hedy.  We look forward to collaborating with you again soon to focus on the health and educational needs of America’s children.

A: Thank you.  It would be a pleasure.