Maryland elementary schools would be required to intervene in the lives of chronically absent students under a bill being filed by a state lawmaker from Montgomery County.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Wheaton, is introducing the proposed law in light of research that says addressing absenteeism in kindergarten and first-grade students will make them less likely to drop out of high school.

The Preventing Chronic Absenteeism bill would most benefit children in areas of high poverty, a condition which has a large impact on student attendance, she said.

"If we're going to look to close the gaps, we can't do business as usual," Gutierrez said. "You have to accelerate and enrich those on the bottom of the gap, not just focus on the stellar, super students, which is what we do with all our policies for AP and IB courses. That's fine, but we need consistent support for kids who early on are falling behind, because it's really hard to catch up."

The bill calls for county boards to develop and implement attendance incentive plans and tactics to intervene when students show patterns of "chronic absence," defined as missing 20 or more days in a school year, whether excused or not excused. On the contrary, "high attendance" refers to failure to attend four days of school or fewer.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties do not currently have intervention programs for their youngest students with attendance issues. Nearly 8 percent of Prince George's elementary students and 4.2 percent of Montgomery's missed 20 or more days of school last year. Montgomery's high school dropout rate is a low 2 percent, alongside a 2.64 percent rate in Prince George's.

Hedy Chang, researcher for Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, co-authored a report that linked chronic early absence to later academic missteps.

"There's a natural assumption so widely understood that it is rarely invoked: students have to be present and engaged in order to learn," Chang said. "So it is remarkable that thousands of our youngest students are academically at-risk because of extended absences when they first embark upon their school careers."

Gutierrez introduced the bill last year, but it did not move out of committee, a common conclusion for a first-year bill.

"There certainly has been a lot more of the awareness of the issue [since then]," Gutierrez said. "I might have been an early proponent of the concept, but now we've seen Education Week do a whole series on this, and others even more."

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com