‘Strive for Less Than Five:’ Polk County schools’ plan to reduce absenteeism

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Polk County schools need more people in the classroom, and it’s not just teachers.

The school system is short by approximately 100 teachers at the start of the school year and is actively recruiting educators from outside of Florida, including new hires from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.

The school system also wants more students in the classroom. It’s battling an attendance problem.

In 2015-2016, the most recent year data has been available, more than 3,300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade missed 21 days or more.

Ten missed days is considered chronic absenteeism.

This year, five elementary schools are piloting the “Strive for Less Than Five” program, an effort by the Polk Vision committee of educators and community members to raise awareness of the long-term effects that missing school has on educational development.

Starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, chronic absence can leave third graders unable to read proficiently, sixth graders struggling with coursework and high school students off track for graduation.

Chronic absence is especially problematic among students living in poverty who are most likely to have poor attendance over multiple years and least likely to have the resources to make up for the lost time in the classroom.

“Strive for Less Than Five” will monitor daily absences at the five participating schools, encourage friendly competition between the schools to have the lowest number of absentees and ask community organizations to promote the importance of attending school every day.

Polk County schools are also trying to get more parents involved in the education system. Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd appeals to local employers to work with parents who need time off to volunteer at their child’s school, attend meetings and be a part of field trips and other events.

“If you have employees that need some volunteer hours, allow them to come and give some of that time to our schools and our students,” said Byrd.

Superintendent Byrd said low parental involvement is largely due to how spread out Polk County is and a large number of parents not having adequate transportation.

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