Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. students are missing 'staggering' amount of school, and it's time to take action: report

Thousands of students are missing too many school days, and the province's child and youth advocate has released a new report calling for change.

Child and youth advocate gives government a one-year deadline for change

About 6,600 children in Newfoundland and Labrador were chronically absent from school in the 2016-17 school year.

With thousands of children in Newfoundland and Labrador missing class in "staggering" amounts each year, the province's Office of the Child and Youth Advocate has released a new report examining the issue, one that calls for collective action from government departments, schools and communities.

Chronic Absenteeism: When Children Disappear, released Thursday, shines a spotlight on what it terms "a quiet problem": many students are missing 10 per cent or more of the school year, and the province is currently not effectively addressing the problem.

"All of the officials that we talked to said throughout the province, at all grade levels, there is great concern about the number of students who are not showing up for class on a regular basis," Jackie Lake Kavanagh, the child and youth advocate.

"They don't know where the children are. They don't know what's going on with them."

Statistics from the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District state that 10 per cent of the provincial student body — some 6,600 children — missed at least 18 days, or 10 per cent, of the 2016-17 school year.

"Those numbers are staggering," said Kavanagh.

Child and Youth Advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh says the reasons children miss class can be complex and varied. (CBC)

Not just a school problem

While those numbers clearly signify chronic absenteeism as a problem, further data on the issue is largely hard to find in Canada, said the report.

Similarly, identifying the root causes of chronic absenteeism is not easy.

"Typically … this is identified as a school problem: The schools need to work harder to get children in their desks in the morning," said Kavanagh. That attitude, on its own, oversimplifies the issue, she added.

The report divides the numerous absenteeism factors into four areas, which can overlap: student, family, school and communities. 

For example, a student may face mental health or behavioural issues that make them miss class. Likewise, a parent's mental health issues or abusive behaviour can also contribute, or there could be bullies at school, or a combination of all these factors — or more — could be at play.

Affecting all grades

No matter the influencing factors, the results are troubling.

"Chronic absenteeism is a stronger predictor of dropouts than low grades," said Kavanagh, citing the report's finding that 75 per cent of Grade 6 students who chronically miss class will not go on to graduate.

The report also cites the increasing prevalence of "age creep"; school district officials used to be concerned chronic absenteeism "was once mainly an issue in high school, but now is also prevalent in primary and elementary grades."

There is enough information to act. Government doesn't need to keep researching this forever.- Jackie Lake Kavanagh

These trends have staff within the school system concerned, said the report, citing a "major frustration" with the lack of assistance from other programs or government bodies, such as the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development, or the Department of Health.

Solutions need to be collaborative, said Kavanagh. 

"It can't just focus on what the school system is going to do. It's the school system, in conjunction with health-care services, and child-protection services, and the community as well," she told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

'More evidence, more knowledge'

Sheldon Pollett, executive director of non-profit agency Choices for Youth, said he's pleased with the report and the advocate's work to draw attention to the complexity of chronic absenteeism.

"It adds more evidence, more knowledge around some of the things happening in our schools, but it's connected to so many other issues that young people in our province face around mental health, around addiction, around family breakdown, childhood trauma, all of these things," he said. 

"I think we're well past the notion that what's happening in schools is just about schools."

Executive director of Choices for Youth Sheldon Pollett says he's very pleased with the advocate's report. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Pollett said the issues many chronically absent children face can push school to the back burner.

"There's things going on in their lives that are impacting their basic needs to a point where school is actually not their priority," he said,

"Even at a young age, whether they're aware of that or not, things happening in their lives are affecting their ability to engage in the school system."

At Choices for Youth, Pollett said, he often hears from young people that they want to go to school, but it takes time and support to be engaged in the process of learning.

He said it's important that vulnerable families get increased support, in tandem with more social and emotional learning in schools.

The problem will take more resources and government bodies than just the school system to solve, says the report. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Time to act

While the report paints a dire picture of children falling through cracks and chasms in the system, it also does detail solutions, and Kavanagh sees a silver lining in the report's research.

"We've laid out a number of criteria for effective responses, and we've identified actual programs that have been implemented in other places," she said.

"There is enough information to act. Government doesn't need to keep researching this forever."

The report recommends the school districts and various branches of government come together and develop an action plan to combat chronic absenteeism, and gives the provincial government a one-year deadline for that plan.

"Any further delay to address this issue is not an option," the report states.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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