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Empty desks: How violence, poverty can impact attendance for some Chattanooga students

The Howard School (Image: WTVC).
The Howard School (Image: WTVC).
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Student absenteeism rates took a turn during the pandemic, and some schools are still trying to make a comeback. But community violence, poverty and mental health challenges are still keeping some kids out of the classroom.

On Monday, we explored barriers impacting student attendance in some of Hamilton County's lower performing schools, many of which were challenges long before COVID-19 hit.

It's something no one should have to go through, not to mention a young child.

"I really don't know how to feel about it. It's just like, I can't believe it actually happened to me," says Essence Ware, a Brainerd High School freshman.

As one of seven women shot on Grove Street in Chattanooga's Westside this past September, Ware has scars that left more than just a physical toll.

"Sometimes my arm aches a lot, like right now it’s aching," she told us Monday.

Ware says her injuries kept her out of school for over a month. Although she was happy to return, it wasn't easy coming back to class, even with some of the work she missed excused.

"When I went back to school, I did have a lot of catching up to do," she says. "I never had to catch up on that much work before, I don't think."

Ware is a student at Brainerd High School, where nearly 70% of students were considered chronically absent last school year, which means they missed at least 10% of school days.

"I know some of them go through their health issues. There's probably a reason, or something going on at home," said Ware, explaining that, at times, half her class will be missing. She said sometimes her peers will miss class because they're suspended after altercations that happen at school.

Community violence, like what Ware experienced on Grove Street in Chattanooga's Westside, is just one of the barriers impacting student attendance in some of the county’s lowest performing schools.

"All schools have issues with chronic absenteeism. What happens in a priority school is you have a concentration of students who are challenged by what causes chronic absenteeism," said Dr. Edna Varner, Senior Advisor of Leading and Learning at the Public Education Foundation, and a member of the school district's equity advisory committee.

Schools on the state's 'priority list' earn this status due to low rates of student success and growth, or because of low graduation rates. Seven Hamilton County Schools were listed on the state's priority list for 2021. They are included below with their chronic absenteeism rates for last school year, which all hover well above the district's average, which was about 20%.

  • Brainerd High School: 69.3%
  • Dalewood Middle School: 61.4%
  • Orchard Knob Middle School: 56.3%
  • The Howard School: 54.8%
  • Orchard Knob Elementary School: 44.2%
  • Hardy Elementary School: 40.3%
  • Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy: 30.5%

Dr. Varner, who was the principal at The Howard School from 1997-2001, says challenges causing chronic absenteeism, both nationally and locally, include mental health issues, poverty and other factors.

"If families are struggling with housing, and they're having to move from family member to family member to friend, then children are going to be absent," she says, describing housing instability as one barrier impacting student attendance.

"When I was principal, children were kept out of school, high school students, to babysit so that the parents could work because they couldn’t afford daycare," said Dr. Varner, listing another example.

Howard School senior Amy Xiloj says sometimes her classes are only half full. She says peers miss class for a variety of reasons, including mental health challenges, and helping parents pay the bills.

"Sometimes they have to put their family first, and work extra hours during school so they can provide for their families," saysXiloj.

Whether it’s because of violence, poverty, or a lack of engagement, missing class can take a toll on those who are absent.

"The reason chronic absenteeism matters, is because you can't learn if you're not in school," says Dr. Varner.

Xiloj says high student absence rates can also take a toll on those still in the classroom. That's because when many students miss school, it can make those who are still there question the importance of their education.

"There was a point where I did feel like my education wasn't important. And I didn't come to school for like, at least two weeks," Xiloj admitted, describing a thought she says passes through many of her peers' minds.

"'Why should I care about my, about my education, if other people act like they don't care?' So it was impacting me as well," says Xiloj, describing some of her thoughts earlier this year.

But after a conversation with her guidance counselor, she decided to come back to school and set an example for others.

"I realized that my impact on not coming to school was impacting others. So I decided to come to school and actually represent for Howard," says Xiloj.

She hopes more of her classmates will do the same, and encourages those who are having trouble to seek help.

"We're the next generation, you know, doctors, leaders, so education has a lot of impact for a lot of students," Xiloj said, explaining that without school, many students would probably be lost.

In order to help combat student attendance challenges, Xiloj says schools need to listen more to student voice and needs.

"I think in order for students to come, they have to be listened to," she says, also explaining the need for more mental health support in schools.

Dr. Varner says it's important for the district to continue exploring innovative, hands-on ways to engage students.

"We need to spend more time surfacing and developing the talents and the skills and the interests of students," she says.

Dr. Varner also says it's critical to ensure all schools have diverse, experienced teachers in their classrooms, who can keep students interested.

"More important than what they're learning, is how they are learning," she concluded, explaining the need to provide more opportunities for hands-on, real-world problem-solving.

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