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Ensuring Students Show Up to Benefit From Schools

Governor Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice were recently recognized by the National Communities In Schools organization for their role in expanding the program from three to 11 counties — the largest licensed expansion in the country. Their leadership means more children will have access to these critical supports that provide community involvement and mentorship opportunities to those at greatest risk of not attending school or dropping out altogether.

Additionally, increased funding and support championed by Governor Jim Justice and the state Legislature allows county school systems to increase the social and emotional supports for their students in meaningful ways. These are just a few examples of important tools that are becoming more vital to today’s unique classroom environment.

To say that the role of education is to teach children is to grossly misunderstand today’s classrooms. Teachers prepare lesson plans, create assignments to challenge young minds and test comprehension. But this is a very basic understanding of the role of education in a child’s life. Education tears down boundaries. Education levels playing fields. Education is a lifeline out of some of the most desperate situations.

West Virginia’s issues are compounded by a problem that can be fixed and fixed rather quickly. Student absenteeism is causing the most vulnerable students to lose academic footing, jeopardizing more than just their grades. Education is most effective when students are in the classroom regularly and mentally, physically and emotionally prepared to learn.

In recent months, we have heard a great deal about the obstacles our children must overcome. In 2018, 50.6 out of every 1,000 babies born in West Virginia were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a 139 percent increase since 2010. The poverty rate and drug- related mortality rate continue to rise as well, resulting in growing number of students identified as homeless, an increase in grandparents raising school-aged children, and home and food insecurities for many students.

Schools were at one time required to facilitate reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, the ask is more daunting as educators must provide for the basic needs, nutrition and nurturing before the first lesson is taught.

Tackling these obstacles and meeting these critical needs are exactly what the education community is working toward. The West Virginia Board of Education and West Virginia Department of Education are supporting local school boards and educators as they take a “no excuses” approach to these challenges. We are providing guidance to counties on how best to utilize the additional funding afforded education in the previous legislative session to provide comprehensive social and emotional care to students and educators. We are putting resources and personnel behind innovative community-based programming like ReClaimWV and Communities In Schools. We are creating a layered network of support that harnesses the resources of multiple agencies, governing bodies and teachers in the schools.

Through these programs, we are equipping our schools to meet the challenges that arise in the classroom as well as those that students bring with them. We are ensuring students have nutritious meals all year long — even during school breaks and summer months. We are working to reduce the student-to-counselor and support staff ratio so that children have a safe, responsible adult to confide in.

However, these supports have little effect when a child is not coming to school to receive them.

The rate of student absenteeism has grown. In fact, we recently reported that more than 38 percent of schools in West Virginia did not meet the standard for student attendance last year. This is a dire concern that must be addressed. The work we are doing in our schools can only impact a student when they are regularly attending school.

Chronic absenteeism is a national problem, however, in West Virginia it is compounded by the state’s socio-economic struggles. Those who live in poverty are more likely to be chronically absent, and their ability to make-up work from being out of the classroom is more difficult. Instability at home, unreliable child care, homelessness, substance misuse, unemployment and many other issues have an unrelenting hold on too many communities, and school attendance often suffers.

Just like the other challenges facing education, there must be a multi-faceted approach to chronic absenteeism. We must make sure our schools are inviting and the content is engaging. Families and communities must be educated on the repercussions of their children missing school. Training educators and administrators to spot patterns and intervene with proven tactics before the problem becomes excessive is key.

Children must be in school — not only because of the impact attendance has on learning, but because for many of our students, school is the safest and most nurturing place for them.

The road ahead is not easy. West Virginia is unfortunately a national leader in areas like poverty rate and opioid-related deaths; but we are also a national example of a state working as a community to address these issues. West Virginia leads the nation in feeding our students with nearly 310,000 meals are served each day in our schools. Our schools serve as the incubator that nurtures, teaches and launches the next generation of workers who will fuel the economy.

Together we can address our challenges head-on, but it starts with us — all of us — showing up.

Steven L. Paine, Ed.D., is state superintendent of schools for West Virginia.

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