Fighting Chronic Absenteeism in Some South Florida Schools is Top Priority for Officials

This year, the battle against chronic absenteeism is a top priority at many schools across South Florida

Broward County has created a new truancy court to help crack down on parents who aren’t getting their children to school.

This year, the battle against chronic absenteeism is a top priority at many schools across south Florida. That’s because nearly 70,000 kids each missed 21 days of class, or more last year. The Team 6 Investigators worked with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting to see why so many kids aren’t in class, and how that affects all of us.

According to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, there is a definite correlation between truancy, kids dropping out and crime. She said: “If you drop out of high school, you are going to be in the criminal justice system, 350% greater probability, that's a huge number, and a 600%, probability that you're going to be an unwed parent, a teen having a baby."

However, with a bad economy, and a breakdown of some families, children are taking on more and adult roles. Today, the excuses for “empty-desk syndrome” are more complex: from kids being the sole caregiver for a parent battling cancer to a kid dodging class because she or she is being bullied. More than 9 percent of students in Florida, were chronically absent in the 2011-2012 school year, which means they missed 21 days, or more. In Broward, the numbers are worse: 11.4 percent were chronically absent.

Michael Blackstock missed 29 days last year because of an eating disorder, anxiety and depression. Michael’s mom stepped up and stepped in when she saw her son was skipping school to deal with emotional problems. She got him help and he got back in class. She advises parents not to ignore the warning signs because it often camouflages a bigger more serious issue.

Michael’s not alone. At Michael’s school, Hollywood Hills High, more than 31 percent of kids missed more than 21 days in the 2011-2012 school year. To turn that number around, Broward county high schools now have social workers. School social worker Olivia Creary says they will visit the home and try and help the family, with whatever social ill that is affecting the students’ ability to make it to class.

In Miami-Dade schools, chronic absenteeism, is slightly lower than the state average. But at Homestead High School, new principal, Guillermo Muñoz, has a big task ahead. He’s battling one of the highest absentee rates, in south Florida. More than 37 percent of his students missed more than 21 days in the 2011-2012 school year.

He can relate to the social challenges today’s kids face that compete with school. And, like many of his students at homestead high, as a child of immigrants, he was the family interpreter--and often missed school to accompany his family to appointments, or emergencies. He says many of his students stay home to take care of younger siblings. So the often single parent can go to work and keep food on the table and avoid being fired. Munoz hopes Kindle Fires, parties and other incentives for good attendance will encourage kids to come to class. The school has also started a new entrepreneurial academy which teaches students how to start their own businesses. The aim, more, and more, is to also tap into career dreams, and to make learning fun, interactive and related the student’s future career aspirations.

In Broward, the State Attorney’s Office, is focusing on elementary school children’s absences. They will kick into high-gear a new a beefed-up truancy court that goes into session in January. Parents who don’t get their children to school after they’ve received warnings and help, could land in court or worse with a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail.
However, prosecutors say they don’t want to see parents in handcuffs. They want to see kids in class learning.

As for Michael, he wants grownups to understand every kid has their own issues and story for missing school, and it is often more complicated than adults think. Michael is back on track but it wasn’t easy. He advises other kids not to get behind because it just adds to the stress trying to play catch-up.

Chronic absenteeism statewide has gone down slightly the last few years. To see how your school compares to the rest of the state, go to and you can see the numbers for yourself.


In the map below, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting used data from the Florida Department of Education concerning all public schools during the 2011-2012 academic year.

The data includes total students between the ages of 5 and 17 who were enrolled at each public schools, the percentage of students missing 21 or more days of that calendar year, the percentage of students qualifying for reduced or free lunches at these schools.

FCIR used data that showed school grades for 2011-2012, as well as the percentage of students meeting state standards on math, reading and writing.

To access information about each school click on the green, blue, yellow or red dots on the map. Each color represents the percent of students that missed 21 days of more of class for the academic years of 2011-2012. Green means up to 11 percent, blue between 12 and 25 percent, yellow between 26 and 35 percent and red between 35 percent and above.
Source: Florida Department of Education

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