Students who have poor attendance aren’t likely simply playing hooky or racking up suspensions for bad behavior, according to Monroe County School District administrators.
“Some of our students have medical issues. Transportation is also an issue,” said Mike Henriquez, the district alternative education coordinator whose job description includes addressing truancy. “A lot of students are homeless. We do have students who live on boats. If the weather’s bad, they can’t make it to shore.”
In some Florida Keys families, the oldest children are tasked with adult responsibilities.
“They’ll stay home and babysit a younger sibling,” Henriquez said, adding that there is a correlation between truancy and students who have special needs or are from low-income families.
Monroe County schools are one of the top performing districts when it comes to attendance, according to Henriquez. The worst absenteeism recently is in the lower grades, with kindergarteners rating the highest levels of missing more than five days in the first two months of the school year.
In the same period at Key Largo School, 26 percent of kindergarten students have been chronically absent, while the number is 25 percent for the same grade at both Sugarloaf School and Horace O’Bryant School.
The numbers will change as this school year progresses, Henriquez said, and some of the data so far could reflect a family’s vacation.
Also at Sugarloaf, 20 percent of fourth-graders have been chronically absent so far but the fifth-graders there haven’t had any.
Of the three public high schools in Key West, Marathon and Tavernier, only Coral Shores has logged chronic absenteeism of 10 percent or higher. More than 14 percent of Coral Shores sophomores are chronically absent while the rate is nearly 12 percent for 11th- and 12th-graders.
Suspensions for behavior problems on campus is the fifth leading cause of chronic absenteeism, according to a report by Henriquez delivered to the School Board at its November meeting in Key West.
In Florida during the 2014-15 school year, almost 10 percent of K-12 students, some 304,000, in Florida missed 21 days. Nationally, 7.5 million students fall in the chronic category.
Florida is one of the few states collecting data and reporting students who miss 21 days or more per year.
“We’re looking at 10 percent, so for us that would be 18 days or more,” Henriquez said.
Board member Ron Martin, a former high school principal, said, “It just seems like we throw money around in other areas, like technology sometimes, why couldn’t we hire a real person, start banging on doors?”
Police officers assigned to public schools are visiting the homes of students who are missing many days, Henriquez said.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen