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Florida has a chronic absenteeism problem. Here's how two districts are trying to fix it

A classroom at Chiles Academy in Daytona Beach.
Danielle Prieur
A classroom at Chiles Academy in Daytona Beach.

Florida ranks third in the country when it comes to kids being chronically absent from school.

Two Central Florida school districts are looking to tackle this post-COVID problem by implementing two different approaches.

Chiles tries out a 4-day school week

It’s 9 am on a Monday in January, shortly after the holiday break and Chiles Academy Principal Abby Ferguson is walking me around the building. Our first stop is the babies and toddlers room.

The school in Volusia County caters to teen moms, finishing their high school degrees, and it’s trying something new this year: a 4-day school week.

Abby Ferguson is principal at Chiles Academy.
Abby Ferguson is principal at Chiles Academy.

Ferguson said so far, so good. Teachers and staff have noticed around 40 percent fewer absences on a daily basis.

“So the Friday actually gives them time to either schedule, some work time, or really just Mommy and Me Time, which has been really, really fantastic. And something that the students have reported has been really necessary for them. And we're also hearing really good things from parents," said Ferguson.

Sophomore Jalicia Lee said she likes the 4-day school week as it gives her and her classmates more time with their kids, and to work.

Jalicia Lee is a sophomore at Chiles.
Jalicia Lee is a sophomore at Chiles.

“I feel like the extra day does kind of like throw me off. Because it's like, you know, the weekend is about to come. So it's like you're just ready to go home and stuff," said Lee.

Some of the research on shortened school weeks points to kids being less burnt out and therefore missing fewer days and being more engaged overall in their education.

Florida's got a chronic absenteeism problem

Post-COVID, Florida ranks third in the country for chronic student absenteeism. Experts point to a number of factors including a lack of mental health resources, poor childcare, a rise in housing and homelessness, and limited options for transportation to school.

About a third of Florida students were chronically absent across the state in the 2021-2022 school year according to the Florida Department of Education.

But four-day school weeks aren’t the only way districts are looking to tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism. The Brevard County School District wants to try a year-round approach, also known as a balanced school year.

Brevard could be a pilot district in year-round school

Around 14 percent of students were chronically absent in Brevard during the 2021-2022 school year.

Experts say the year-round school year, like the four-day school week, offers more frequent breaks, which help with burnout.

Brevard County School Board Chair Megan Wright attended year-round school.
Megan Wright is Brevard County School Board Chair.

“I think the idea of year-round schools are a really exciting one, I'm a product of year-round school myself."

That’s Megan Wright, Brevard County school board chair. She’s applied for her district to be part of a pilot statewide program for year-round school, under new law HB 891.

She said it would also be a way to help parents.

“I was raised by a single parent and coming up with childcare expenses for two-and-a-half months consistently, that's a huge financial burden to a lot of families. So if we could spread that out over the course of a year, and it not be something that you get hit with all at one time, I think that'd be beneficial as well," said Wright.

Wright says the district is still waiting to hear back from the state, but she’s hopeful one day it’s a model that will be available throughout the district.

Experts ask: will either model help long-term?

Rollins College Education professor Jie Yu says both models, the four-day school week and year-round school year have their pros and cons, but both have been shown to help improve student engagement, and attendance.

A billboard at the front of Chiles Academy.
A billboard at the front of Chiles Academy.

But she said she thinks there are better, and maybe easier ways to deal with chronic absenteeism than changes to how long and when kids are in school, including getting parents more engaged in their child’s education.

“In fact, it’s kind of an open secret in the field of education. Parental support and teacher support are two key factors to our students' learning," said Yu.

Republican State Rep. Michelle Salzman says she’s working on a yet-unnamed bill this legislative session that will help the state better track student absences.

Danielle Prieur is WMFE's education reporter.
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