Archived Opinion

Classrooom contemplations: Showing up is always half the game

op gilchristAbsenteeism in American public schools has reached epidemic proportions. Six million students, one in eight, miss 30 days of school each year and are considered chronically absent. Children of poor families are four times as likely to be chronically absent than their peers and, by ninth grade, seven times more likely to drop out.


I have a bright student in English IV who misses three days of school almost every week, and if she comes, she is often tardy. Last Thursday, I told her it looks like she will fail because of missed assignments. She’s a senior, but she has to pass this class to graduate. She grew teary, explaining that an uncle had recently died and that her night work as a cashier keeps her from getting enough sleep. I’m aware that she helps her single parent pay bills, that her brother and his pregnant girlfriend dropped out recently to work full time, and that there are younger children at home.  

Another bright student had an A in class until he took four days off to go bear hunting and a few others to dig ginseng. He failed the first quarter because of work missed, began this quarter with A’s, then told me he would miss another week for deer season. 

In an English class, a week of absences can mean a student doesn’t understand a complete sentence, that a thesis statement is a road map for the reader, and that punctuation is an example of good manners. In a history class, those absences can mean that a student doesn’t understand the Emancipation Proclamation, the meaning of the word “confederacy,” and that assassination is a specific kind of murder. In a biology class, those absences can mean a student doesn’t understand cross-pollination and that genetics determine human potential. 

The crux of the problem isn’t that students need to earn the diploma to move on to the next step. Nor is it that teachers are evaluated in part by test scores, whether our students attend class or not. And it isn’t even that years of absenteeism result in staggering gaps in general knowledge. The problem is that children who are chronically absent fail or drop out, and a third of high school dropouts, along with their children, live in poverty. 

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In 16 years of teaching, I have learned three causes of absenteeism: generational poverty, parental apathy, and cultural identity taking precedence over attendance at school. From John Locke to Leo Tolstoy, we have known for centuries that public school is democracy’s best means for producing an educated citizenry. But public school only works if we have engaged families, a supportive community, and, most of all, students who actually attend.

(Dawn Gilchrist is a writer and a high school English teacher in Swain County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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