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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — When the same seats remain empty in the classroom for long periods of time — and there are vague reasons why the students who are supposed to occupy those seats are not showing up for school — a collective strategy is required to get those students back to their studies, a new report states.
The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate in the province released a report Thursday that found Newfoundland and Labrador is not effectively addressing chronic student absenteeism.
“Many children and youth in Newfoundland and Labrador are routinely absent from school without excuse or reason,” Child and Youth Advocate Jacqueline Lake Kavanagh wrote in the report.
“Once they become disconnected from school, it can be hard to reverse. These children often lose their social connections, they drop behind in the curriculum, they miss opportunities to participate in school activities, and eventually they may disappear from school completely. There is a long list of root causes for these absences. Although this is not a new issue, it is a very troubling one which affects students across all grades and can have lasting impacts throughout their lives.”
Kavanagh said her review shows how children who are absent from school have needs that require responses from many different government services, not just schools.
“We must stop defining this solely as a school problem,” she said. “The issue truly demands a comprehensive approach that also involves the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development, the Department of Health and Community Services, and the regional health authorities.”
The report notes that chronic absenteeism is defined as unexcused school absences resulting in a student missing at least 10 per cent of the school year, or 18 days.
It also found that Canada has no systematic approach to collecting data, and information is incomplete on provincial/territorial government websites.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, however, produced data for the 2016-17 school year that indicated 10 per cent of approximately 66,000 students were absent for at least 18 days — both excused and unexcused.
The report notes that research reveals many factors contribute to chronic absenteeism involving individual students, families, schools and communities. Some of the factors include: learning disabilities, mental-health issues for children and parents, child disengagement from school, negative parental attitudes about education, parental substance abuse, poverty, abusive parenting, domestic violence, weak relationships between teachers and students, inadequate connection between school and parents, racism in school, violence in school, insufficient school personnel, homelessness, and a community environment that does not support education.
"Although this is not a new issue, it is a very troubling one which affects students across all grades and can have lasting impacts throughout their lives.” — Child and Youth Advocate Jacqueline Lake Kavanagh
The report also noted that the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development’s new child protection legislation — Children, Youth and Families Act — that received royal assent in the House of Assembly on May 31, 2018 does not provide guidance on the issue of chronic absenteeism.
Kavanagh says an interdisciplinary team is needed to design a comprehensive program addressing the variety of issues that accompany absenteeism.
Her report makes four recommendations:
- Within one year, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development — in conjunction with the school districts, the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development, the Department of Health and Community Services and Regional Health Authorities — should develop an action plan to address chronic absenteeism. The plan should incorporate knowledge of best practices, Include community partners that provide services to children and youth, provide appropriate resources for any pilots that emerge from the action plan, and implement professional staff development.
- Authorities should develop and implement policy specifically identifying how staff will effectively assess and respond to chronic absenteeism.
- The Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, and the school districts, should collaboratively develop and implement policies and protocols specifically defining the point at which chronic absenteeism situations require referral to the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development.
- The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the Department of Health and Community Services, and the school districts should develop agreements with the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development and the regional health authorities defining how all these partners will collectively contribute to addressing chronic absenteeism.
Kavanagh says in the report’s conclusion that it is “vitally important” to ensure a shared response to the issue so children do not continue to fall through the gaps.
“Without a solid education to ground them in life, children will be disadvantaged in their opportunities for success, both as children and as adults,” she stated. “As the report demonstrates, there is sufficient research, existing practice models and understanding of best/promising practices to guide action now. There is ample room for flexibility. Any further delay to address this issue is not an option.”