Who's Really Skipping School?

Think most truants are poor kids or kids with jobs? Think again.

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It's become a truism in the education world that students can't learn if they're not in school. But a new report on student absenteeism suggests many kids don't believe this behavior hurts them academically or even gets noticed by their teachers or parents.

Researchers from Get Schooled, a national nonprofit seeking to improve graduation rates and college success rates, conducted over 500 interviews with teenagers in 25 cities nationwide to produce Skipping to Nowhere, a new report released Wednesday. These respondents, interviewed at their local malls, were in grades eight through 12 and reported that they had skipped school at least once a month.

The nation's school absenteeism rate is significant. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimate that from 5 to 7.5 million students each year are not attending school on a regular basis. Students who miss more than 10 days per academic year are 20 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers, according to the University's Everyone Graduates Center.

Get Schooled's new report paints a portrait that offers fresh perspective about who, exactly, is skipping school. Among the findings:

  • Just over half of the respondents were white, with Hispanics accounting for 24 percent, African Americans for 16 percent, and Asians for 2 percent.

  • Nearly 60 percent of the respondents are growing up in two-parent households.

  • Two-thirds of the respondents described their household's income to be average or above average.

  • About a third of the respondents have parents who graduated from college, and an equal fraction had a parent who had dropped out of high school.

  • Only 6 percent of the respondents said they were skipping school either to work or to help care for a member of their family.

There is no "typical skipper," said Betsy Landers, National PTA president, one of several experts who participated in a conference call with reporters Tuesday to discuss the report. "The problem has no boundaries and threads across all demographics."

What might surprise some educators and parents (and should probably set off some alarm bells, as well) is the belief among the school-skippers that their absences go largely unnoticed at home or at school. Students rated their odds of being caught skipping by school officials as 50-50, and described their parents as even less observant. Those findings emphasize that "parents are the first line of defense," Landers said.

Also on the call with reporters was Todd Peterson, an assistant principal at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas -- one of the 25 cities in the survey -- who said campus efforts to address absenteeism are complicated by a lack of resources for support staff and truancy officers. At the same time, Peterson said, parents don't always treat early warnings from schools as seriously as they should, which means students often miss so many days that they have little chance of catching up.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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