How Hawai‘i’s Schools Are Tackling Chronic Absenteeism

A prime predictor of future economic and emotional instability, and even prison time, chronic absenteeism affects large numbers of Hawai‘i public school students. Last school year, nearly 27,000 students got in trouble for missing too much school. Helping them show up consistently will take a community effort.
Empty chair
photo: aaron k. yoshino


Champagne Madeyski remembers the time as a child when her family was kicked out of their rental home after the landlord sold the house.


We had to get out that same day,” she recalls. “To even think of that when I was that small when that happened, I’m like, ‘Wow, we just got booted.’”


Now 25 and a mother of four (ages 2, 4, 6 and 8 with a fifth baby due in April), Madeyski had moved several times between Kailua and Wai‘anae in search of a home they could afford. But every time they moved, the children transferred between two schools. She didn’t realize she was repeating her own family’s pattern of hopping from one place to another—that is, until the day last year when school officials notified Madeyski that her 8-year-old daughter had cumulatively missed about a month of classes.


Uprooting her kids took a toll. Her daughter’s struggles in school snowballed. The youngster, a second-grader at Kamaile Academy in Wai‘anae, fell behind and couldn’t grasp the curriculum. She brought work home but couldn’t understand it.


Still, the day that school officials notified Madeyski, it came as a shock, she says.


“That hit me. And I was like, ‘I need to stay in place.’”


Showing up is arguably the most critical component of student success. Although class attendance is mandated by state law, nearly 27,000 students—15 percent—enrolled in the state Department of Education’s schools were chronically absent last school year. Chronic absenteeism—missing 15 or more days of the school year—plagues every community, hitting some areas harder than others. Schools are searching for innovative ways to curb the statewide problem, and in turn, are shaping their roles in communities.


“When a child misses school, it’s like … you walk into class and everyone’s speaking a different language.”
—Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association


A vital life skill

The impacts of not showing up are widespread and sometimes irreversible. Students who miss class too much fall behind and tend to perform worse academically. Chronic absenteeism can also lead kids to drop out of high school. In some cases, students repeat grades, or seniors can’t graduate.


A 2011 California study found that only 17 percent of chronically absent kindergarteners and first-graders could read proficiently by third grade. Other national research depicts a bleaker future: Chronic absenteeism can shape adulthood. Dropping out of high school has been linked to poverty and criminal activity, says the U.S. DOE. About 80 to 89 percent of Hawai‘i prison inmates said they were truant from school, according to a 2006 UH study.


Chronic absenteeism can also be a vicious cycle that worsens over time. Students who are chronically absent are 35 percent more likely than their peers to miss a lot of school the following year, says the DOE. In the Islands, about 13 percent of elementary students were chronically absent last school year. But that number increased to 15 percent for middle schoolers and to 22 percent for high schoolers.


The data is so alarming that the DOE has set a goal to decrease the chronic absentee rate statewide to 9 percent by 2020. DOE officials say it is an attainable goal, but the path to reach that target is mainly left up to each complex area.

  Chronic absenteeism


“When a child misses school, it’s like … you walk into class and everyone’s speaking a different language that you don’t even understand because you’ve missed so much time that we’ve moved on to another topic,” says Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, who struggled with the problem for years as a Campbell High teacher. “They feel they’re behind and often times they give up.”


Champagne Madeyski is proof that community help can make a difference. Her family had settled in at the “houseless” encampment near the Wai‘anae boat harbor and her kids were finally able to catch up on schoolwork last year. Her partner works two jobs as a dishwasher to support the family.


But she admits life would have been easier if they had lived in a home with running water and a roof over their heads; she was finally able to move into transitional housing in Mā‘ili in February. Madeyski and her family, like many of the encampment’s more than 150 residents, had lived in a makeshift structure made from wooden pallets, tarps and other materials. The 19-acre encampment’s wooded area provides shade from the sun, but rain and storms can cause huge puddles to form, flooding many structures.


As Madeyski yearns for a better future for her kids, she says the path to that future revolves around one thing—education.


Symptoms of larger issues

Chronic absenteeism
When kids at the Wai‘anae homeless encampment aren’t in school, they’re kept busy with chores and activities such as hula and building playgrounds.
photo: marie hobro


It takes a village to raise a child—a common saying but one that underscores the importance of an engaging, nurturing community. Ideally, a child’s village should include people from all walks of life: families, schools, businesses, government officials. The list goes on.


But circumstances make it difficult for some students to show up: They are grappling with family issues or other problems that are often out of their control. Socio-economic conditions can compound the problem and shape a school’s role in the community.


In Hawai‘i, students who receive free or reduced lunch are more than twice as likely to be chronically absent than their peers. Children with disabilities and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are also disproportionately impacted by chronic absenteeism.


For the past two school years, chronic absenteeism has hit two complex areas the hardest: Nānākuli-Wai‘anae and Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa on the Big Island. About one-third of students in both areas were chronically absent over the past two years, a significant jump from the other 13 complexes, which each logged 20 percent or lower. It has shown in both areas’ performance: About 24 percent of students in Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa and 18 percent in Nānākuli-Wai‘anae tested proficient in math last school year. This compares to 43 percent statewide.


About 24 percent of the 48,300 Wai‘anae Coast residents live below the poverty level. At Wai‘anae High School, 71 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch last school year; at Wai‘anae Intermediate, it’s 90 percent. On the Big Island, nearly 30 percent of the 14,500 Pāhoa residents and the 18,100 in Kea‘au live below the poverty level. Both regions are also geographically isolated, far from many essential services.


“The student not coming to school doesn’t happen just because the students just don’t come to school,” says Brad Asakura, counselor at Keonepoko Elementary on the Big Island. The school’s chronic absentee rate was 22 percent last school year. “We look at attendance as a symptom of something much larger.”


Health care access

Health care access
Makana Prothero works as an APRN at both the Wai‘anae Intermediate and Wai‘anae High health centers.
photo: aaron k. yoshino


Disa Hauge, Wai‘anae High principal, says several of her students had missed class because of illness. If students got sick during school, they typically were sent home and then would likely spend the next day at the doctor’s office. With one major health provider in the community, resources are limited.


Wai‘anae Intermediate Principal John Wataoka saw a similar pattern among many of his students. In a survey of the Wai‘anae community on reasons students don’t come to school, one of the top responses was health care.


The solution: Provide health care services on campus.


Both schools, in partnership with the Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, opened health centers in 2016. They followed the lead of Kahuku High and Intermediate, which opened a health center in the 2012-13 school year with help from the Ko‘olauloa Health Center.


“It’s tempting to look at year-end statistics and draw conclusions. But for the kids  who are choosing to come in, I think we are absolutely changing their trajectory.”
—Dr. Vija Sehgal, Wai‘anae School Clinics


The Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center opened the clinics with a grant and developed a sustainable model that bills for services—they take students’ insurance but will also see kids without coverage. The clinics are staffed by advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, who hold master’s degrees and can diagnose and treat illnesses, as well as prescribe medication. This is different from school health aides, who are trained in CPR and certified in basic first aid. Students can walk into the health center, which is set up like a doctor’s office, and schedule appointments.


Results have been positive—of the 1,791 Wai‘anae High students treated at the clinic from May to December 2017, 97 percent returned to class that same day. At Wai‘anae Intermediate, about 90 percent of the 1,271 students treated during the same period went back to class. Without the health center, most students would likely have been sent home and would have missed the next day to see a doctor. Families feel more comfortable knowing there are APRNs on campus, school officials say.


Reasons students visited the health center span the spectrum: physicals, the flu, asthma, fractures, concussions, headaches.


“The kids are here five days a week. We see them sometimes more than their own home,” says Makana Prothero, an APRN at both school clinics. “Having this here for them is an amazing opportunity. It provides that access to care that they might otherwise not have.”


Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center also provides a psychologist to help students with behavioral health and emotional support on campus, as well as two health educators who incorporate health into the curriculum. Students visit the psychologist for help with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.


“It’s tempting to look at year-end statistics and draw conclusions. But for the kids who are choosing to come in, I think we are absolutely changing their trajectory,” says Dr. Vija Sehgal, a pediatrician who oversees the school clinics. The health centers have made a difference in sending many kids back to class, she says, despite the data showing that chronic absenteeism persists at both schools. “We’re on their turf. We are the visitors.”


Meanwhile, the Hawai‘i Keiki program, a partnership between the DOE and the UH School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene, places registered nurses and APRNs in schools statewide.


Started in 2014, the program began with three nurses and now has 14 on staff as of February (not all of the nurses are assigned to complex areas).


Nurses focus on providing medical services, as well as working with teachers and staff to develop resources and programs. On the Big Island, one of the nurses taught staff to use an EpiPen.


UH hopes to recruit additional nurses by the end of the school year so each of the 15 complex areas is assigned a nurse.


Officials say the impact on schools has been huge—last school year, Hawai‘i Keiki nurses handled about 1,570 cases referred to them by school health aides. They administered 133 prescriptions, which required the expertise and training of an RN or APRN. Most notably, of the 26,594 visits to the health room, 85 percent of students returned to class after treatment.


“Health and learning are interdependent,” says Mary Boland, dean of UH’s School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene, who oversees the program. “I think there was a time historically when it was, ‘I’m the teacher. I’m the educator.’ And health people, we were just as guilty to say, ‘If you don’t show up for your appointment, that’s your problem.’ There’s a recognition now that we want to be working together, that it will provide better health outcomes for children and families, as well as academic success for the students and the communities.”


Homeless resources      

Madeyski’s 6- and 8-year-old kids are two of more than 3,000 homeless students enrolled in DOE schools this year. Some officials say homelessness can create barriers that make it difficult for students to get to class—they may not have school supplies, clothes or uniforms; they may be bullied; or they may be constantly on the move with their families, in search of housing.


Students have the right to continue attending the same school they went to prior to becoming homeless under a federal act. They also receive free bus transportation and meals.


Jcleen Sahle, who lives with her family at the Wai‘anae boat harbor encampment, admits that life would be much easier for her three kids if they lived in a home. After school, she and the kids walk to the only working faucet at the boat harbor to fill their water jugs, shower and wash dishes. She grapples with finding the right answer when her kids ask, “Mommy, why can’t we live in a good house?”


Sahle, who moved to the Islands from Micronesia in 2009, says she hopes her kids will have a better future because they attend school in America. She worked until about two years ago when she quit to care for her kids and husband, who had suffered a heart attack. On top of that, Sahle says her son is bullied at school.


“I’m not going to live long. I want you to have a better life and a future. Where you going to get it from? School,” she recalls telling her son, who attends nearby Kamaile Academy, an arts-integrated charter school focused on Native Hawaiian culture. “In your whole life, you have to learn.”


The Nānākuli-Wai‘anae complex area topped the charts with the most homeless students this year: 571, which accounts for about 7 percent of the regions’ nearly 7,700 students.


To aid homeless families, the DOE has provided 17 part-time homeless community liaisons over the past decade. They help connect students and families with much-needed social services, such as housing, job assistance and clothing. Each complex area is assigned one liaison, except for the Nānākuli-Wai‘anae and Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa complex areas, which are assigned two each. The department recently added 15 full-time liaisons with experience in social work. Their job is to develop additional resources to help families.


Kamaile Academy’s Navigators’ Center and its social services worker help families in need by connecting them with social services and providing clothing and supplies. The school’s counselors hold individual and group sessions to tackle bullying and other social-emotional needs, says associate principal Paul Kepka.


Wai‘anae High and Wai‘anae Intermediate provide showers, laundry services, and free clothes and supplies to homeless students. The intermediate school offers antibullying lessons.


“If a student is transient, more than likely they have other family issues going on,” says Wataoka, the intermediate school’s principal. “Homelessness in general is an issue. It provides additional challenges.”


In the Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa complex area on the Big Island, the region is so vast—60 miles from one end to the other—that students travel far to get to school. (Students who live in the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates subdivision make a more than 50-mile trek round trip to Ka‘ū High on the bus. And for some kids, it’s a 2-mile walk between home and the bus stop.) About 20 to 40 percent of the area’s students switch schools each year as their families search for employment and housing or seek relief from domestic problems.


The region’s isolation underscores the importance of home visits and relationship building. (Cell phone and radio reception is spotty, and for several families, they are luxuries they can’t afford.) Asakura and Christine Lally, Keonepoko Elementary counselors, visit families three to eight times per week to offer help.


The complex also offers free food and clothing with help from the Salvation Army, and has a few social workers to help families connect to services. Chad Farias, the complex area superintendent, says they received grant funding for additional social workers but are having difficulty with recruitment. Officials are also exploring ways to allow buses onto private or dirt roads so students won’t have to walk so far to catch the bus.


Growing community assets

Students who are excited for school and feel safe and nurtured are less likely to miss class. This is the idea that some schools are using to target chronic absenteeism.


“Joy, excitement and learning go hand in hand,” says Ted Dintersmith, the visionary behind Most Likely to Succeed, a film that examines education reform and innovation. “Is the issue when the kid isn’t showing up the kid? Or is it what we make them do? That’s the core issue of absenteeism.”


Dintersmith points to some public schools that have found ways to engage students: Wai‘anae High’s Searider Productions; Campbell High’s creative media program; and Waipahu High’s transition to an academy model, which incorporates curriculum with career-focused learning.    

  Community assets

At Wai‘anae High’s Searider Productions, students learn skills that prepare them for careers in journalism, design and photography.
Photo: Courtesy of wai‘anae high school’s searider productions


At Keonepoko Elementary, teachers serve as a support system, regularly checking on kids as part of the Sunshine Club.


Wai‘anae Intermediate teachers attend professional development workshops that reinforce relationship building with students. The goal is to have every student connect with at least one adult who is there for support.


Some students at Wai‘anae High participate in boys and girls groups, which teach teens coping and social skills, as well as provide emotional support. At the end of the school year, students who have done well are rewarded with lunch at a nice restaurant.


“For a lot of the kids, life is tough. Circumstances make it difficult for them,” says Hauge, Wai‘anae High principal. “The thing that’s important is to not dwell on these poor kids but look instead at how their circumstances make them strong. Our job is to be here to say, ‘You define yourself. Your circumstances don’t.’”


Other schools target chronic absenteeism at a community level, dipping into the village’s pool of resources.


All of the Wai‘anae schools’ principals sent letters to local businesses in December asking for help to form a community truancy committee tasked with changing the way residents view education. The committee also comprises police officers, government officials and community leaders.


In the Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa area, schools adopted Challenge 5, a program founded in Michigan that educates and rallies communities around school attendance. The campaign encourages kids to miss fewer than five days of school a year.


The thinking behind Challenge 5 is twofold: Students who attend school will likely graduate and hold jobs that will give back to the community. In this way, community members have a stake in school attendance since students are their future employees and leaders.


The program rewards students for good attendance—they are given tokens to spend at local stores, and classes are thrown popcorn parties. Staff also engage businesses at community events.


“We are in the business of growing assets for our community. Every student who graduates high school, every student who goes to college, that becomes an asset for us,” says Asakura, one of the counselors who spearheaded Challenge 5. “With every student who drops out or doesn’t graduate from high school, that student goes from becoming a potential asset to becoming a potential liability to our community. It is a strong injustice to the students and our neighbors if we don’t start paying attention to that and seeing our keiki as an investment.”


When the courts get involved

Truancy court
Truancy Court
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


As hard as schools try, there are still students who are chronically absent. This is where Truancy Court comes in.


First launched at Wai‘anae Intermediate in 2015, Truancy Court was developed in partnership with Family Court judges in Kapolei and seeks to intervene and offer support and services early on.


The idea is gaining popularity: Kaua‘i officials launched a truancy court last year, and the Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa area is developing its own court program.


Ocie Kuhaulua, 66, serves as truancy officer, overseeing dozens of students every year.


Once students hit five unexcused absences, Kuhaulua and her team intervene. They make home visits and meet with students and parents to see if they need help with anything—housing, uniforms, counseling, switching classes, tutoring.


Prior to the Truancy Court program, the school had no way of holding parents and students accountable, she says. They could file in Family Court, but Kuhaulua says it could take several months for the case to wind through the system. By that time, students might have moved on to high school.


“They’re our future community people. We want them to survive having some knowledge.”
—Ocie Kuhaulua, Wai‘anae Intermediate truancy officer


Most students improve after initial interventions, but Kuhaulua still checks on them weekly, seeing about 15 to 20 kids a day. When they’ve done well, they’re rewarded with gift cards and movie tickets.


Of the 90 students in the program this school year as of January, about 30 were sent on to Truancy Court—these were the egregious cases, the ones who needed to be seen by a judge in a courtroom. Last school year, 35 students of the 129 in the program were sent to Truancy Court. All of the remaining students improved their attendance and didn’t have to go to court.


Kuhaulua doesn’t have an easy job: She deals with “a lot of bull,” as she describes it, and is on the receiving end of swearing and yelling. In some cases, she finds that absenteeism is multigenerational.


But she knows how to get to the heart of the matter. She jokes with kids. She lectures them. And she shows them love. As a lifelong Wai‘anae Coast resident, she knows many of the families. And most warm up to her eventually.


“I’m not the most popular person with some of the parents because they’re used to having it their way. But they have to understand that we’re willing to give and take. We can get to the root,” she says. “They’re our future community people. We want them to survive having some knowledge.”


But some students never show improvement—a couple of teens had already missed more than 50 days of school in the first semester alone in 2017-18. Some kids already have run-ins with the law.


Kuhaulua has learned to accept that she can’t help them all.


“We focus so much on the ones that have to go to court. But we forgot about all of the kids that did make a difference,” she says. “You got to be OK with some failures. I can’t change their lifestyle.”


SEE ALSO: This Truancy Court Pilot Program Gets At-Risk Students to Show Up for School


Leveraging the village

Despite many school and statewide efforts, chronic absenteeism persists.


For the Ka‘ū-Kea‘au-Pāhoa complex area, the chronic absentee rate has remained at 30 percent for the past two years. But Farias, the area’s superintendent, says most schools this year have reported improvements: Keonepoko Elementary’s chronic absentee rate decreased from 28 percent to 22 percent last school year.


At Wai‘anae Intermediate and Wai‘anae High schools, the chronic absentee rate increased by 2 percent to 40 percent and 42 percent last year, respectively.


Wataoka and Hauge, the schools’ principals, agree that there’s more to the story. They have seen several students improve, some who missed half a year before but are now down to 30 absences. They are still considered chronically absent, based on the numbers, but it’s a significant improvement.


So who is responsible for ensuring students show up? Many education, health and community officials agree: It’s the village.


Suzanne Mulcahy, assistant superintendent of the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support, says the DOE  trusts each complex area to develop its own attendance initiatives to address the area’s unique challenges and provides them with resources.


“We’re the Department of Education, and some people have jokingly said, but it’s true, we’re not the department of everything,” Mulcahy says. “Each one of those specialized (state) departments has a part to play in the lives of our students, some more than others. It doesn’t mean that we provide it for them, but it means we help them connect with it.”


But Rosenlee, HSTA president, argues that the DOE needs to systematically shift focus to a community-schools model, where schools are hubs that provide social, health and community resources. He says the department needs to do more to support schools and provide additional funding for staff to handle chronic absenteeism.


This lack of resources, he says, leads to teachers becoming everything to students—the counselor, social worker, nutritionist—on top of their jobs as educators. Each community’s unique challenges underscore the idea that comparing schools is unfair, he says.


“It’s almost predicated on the belief that it’s an effort problem, that the schools don’t care about it,” Rosenlee says. “The bigger problem is it’s about the resources.”


Kuhaulua, Wai‘anae Intermediate’s truancy officer, agrees that it starts with everybody.


“It takes a village to raise a kid,” she says. “We need the village.”


Why are students chronically absent?

1. Health care

Students might miss school to go to a doctor’s appointment. Some areas have limited health care resources.


2. No motivation or don’t value education

Officials have found that chronic absenteeism can run in the family, passed down from grandparents to parents to children. Other times, students don’t feel engaged.


3. Homeless or dealing with family struggles

Homeless families may move often in search of shelter. Parents might be dealing with other struggles, such as domestic issues, drugs or economic challenges.


4. Bullying

Students may avoid school if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.


5. Clothing and school supplies

Some families can’t afford uniforms, clothes and supplies for their kids.


Impacts of chronic absenteeism

1. Fall behind

Students who are chronically absent have to juggle keeping up with the current curriculum while catching up on past assignments. This can sometimes lead to kids feeling discouraged and giving up.


2. Repeat grade

Some students are held back. If they’re seniors, they might not graduate with their class.


3. Quality of life diminishes

Chronic absenteeism can shape adulthood and can lead kids to drop out. Dropping out of high school can lead to poverty and even criminal activity, says the U.S. Department of Education.