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More than 13 percent of Utah students were chronically absent from school in 2010-2011 — a problem often tied to lower test scores and higher dropout rates, according to the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah.

Researchers from the policy center presented their findings during a webinar Thursday hosted by the Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project, in which school leaders from across the country talked about absenteeism and how after-school programs can help curb the problem.

"Chronic absenteeism is a red alert that students are headed for academic trouble and eventually for dropping out," said Hedy Chang, a webinar speaker and director of Attendance Works, a national initiative to promote awareness about the importance of school attendance.

Chang said nationwide as many as 7.5 million children miss nearly a month of school each year, and in some cities as many as one out of every four children are absent that often. Believing school doesn't matter, attending a school that isn't meeting their needs, facing bullying at school, and having a lack of access to health care are among explanations for why kids skip school, she said.

The Utah study, which was made public this summer, used data from the State Office of Education and looked at chronic absenteeism and test scores during the 2010-2011 school year, and at absenteeism and dropout rates over time. Any student gone from school 10 percent of the time or more — for any reason, excused or unexcused — was considered chronically absent.

About one in seven kids in Utah — or 13.5 percent of the state's public school students — were found to be chronically absent.

The researchers found that Utah absenteeism spiked in kindergarten and first-grade, then decreased, and then shot up again in junior high and high school. Chronic absenteeism in Utah was worst in the 11th and 12th grades.

They also found that more than 25 percent of Utah seniors who were chronically absent at some point between eighth-grade and 11th-grade dropped out of high school. Those chronically absent as young children were 1.7 times more likely to read below grade level, and students' scores on state tests were lower, on average, than their peers in third through 12th grades.

"I think the most important thing is for parents to realize is it doesn't matter if their kids are missing because they're excused or unexcused," said Kristin Swenson, a policy center research associate. "Just not being in school, it adversely affects academic outcomes."

The center suggested several ways to address the problem, including better data collection of chronic absence rates so teachers, parents and schools can more easily recognize early warning signs that trouble may be ahead and design interventions to help. The study also recommends that kids be allowed to make up work they miss when they're absent.

A number of speakers at the webinar emphasized that after-school programs can also help curb absenteeism. The Utah Education Policy Center also expects to soon release a study of the Salt Lake City School District's community learning centers, which include after-school programs, among other things.

The Center released some of those finding Thursday during the webinar, including that second-grade through fifth-grade students who participated in the after-school programs saw their chronic absence rates drop over time. They also found participating students' scores on state tests in math and language arts increased slightly, while those who didn't participate saw their scores decrease slightly.

"We know from research that high quality after-school programs can really make a difference, that they promote attendance in regular-day school," said Cori Groth, policy center associate director.

Anneli M. Segura, executive director of the Utah Afterschool Network, said the issue is worth exploring further. She said she hopes to see data collection and sharing improve so everyone can see the full benefits of after-school programs.

Twitter: @lschencker —

Online See the study on absenteeism in Utah schools

O To see a research brief on a study on absenteeism in the state's schools conducted by the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah, visit >