Can you hear the collective exhale across Charlotte County? Parents and caregivers have been holding their breath through the first two weeks of school and many are finally letting it out.

Whether in the classroom, virtually or some combination of the two, ensuring our students have a good start is a joint effort that is crucial for their academic success.

September is recognized nationally as Attendance Awareness Month. This year’s theme — Present, Engaged and Supported! — emphasizes that strong, trusting relations among kids, families, teachers and other school staff will have a significant impact on the ability of students to focus and learn.

It is expected that many students could begin the new school year significantly behind in their academic learning.

Continuous learning opportunities were provided for students over the summer, including the Summer Reading Challenge hosted by The Patterson Foundation. The revised COVID Edition of the Summer Reading Challenge included engaging webcasts on each book, called This Book is Cool. Charlotte County Public Library and Tampa Bay Rays offered similar reading challenges to incentivize children to continue reading over the summer. United Way of Charlotte County, as the lead agency for the Charlotte County Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, developed a Summer Slide tip sheet that was given to parents via meal distributions at the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Now that September is here, we must turn our attention to supporting our students and families to transition to a successful first semester.

“Regardless of their choice to return to school buildings or to participate in Charlotte Virtual School, together, as a community, we need to help our students understand the importance of a good education,” said Chantal Phillips, director of Intervention and Dropout Prevention Services for Charlotte County Public Schools. “Academic achievement begins with regular school attendance and ongoing engagement in their coursework.”

Starting as early as kindergarten, chronic absence predicts lower third grade reading scores. By middle school, it is a warning sign that students will fail key classes and drop out of high school.

Missing just two days a month can add up to missing 10% of the school year. Regardless if the absence is considered excused or unexcused by the school, absenteeism is a lost opportunity to learn.

Students are more likely to attend school if they feel safe (emotionally and physically), connected, supported and are encouraged to believe they can learn and achieve. School staff, especially teachers, play a primary role in creating an engaging, supportive school climate that motivates students to attend, and fosters a belief that students can achieve.

Engaged parents and caregivers are encouraged to pay attention to absences adding up and to seek out help to overcome barriers. This school year poses great challenges for us all, so more than ever we need to send the message that attendance is “all day, every day.”

School social workers are here to help families and their students with the challenges they may be facing that get in the way of attending school. If your family needs assistance, reach out to your school social worker by calling your school. You can also call the Families First office at 941-255-7480.

For more information, please call the United Way of Charlotte County at 941-627-3539. Angie Matthiessen is the executive director of United Way of Charlotte County. She can be reached at director@unitedwayccfl.org.

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