Dubuque - Supporting the Marshallese Community to Improve School Attendance

College of Law students who are part of the Community Empowerment Law Project will work with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to better understand the issue of chronic absenteeism among Marshallese students. They will seek to understand the relationship of these students and their families to the schools, establish current policies that may be affecting the situation, and make recommendations for new policies and improved communication.

Dubuque, Iowa, is a growing and rapidly diversifying county: Almost half of the county’s population growth is immigrants. There are more than 3,200 foreign born residents in Dubuque County and the Pacific-Islander population has increased by 780% over the last thirteen years. Yet these immigrant communities face challenges in their new home:  Foreign born families in Dubuque experience a poverty rate 3x that of the general population. Only about 11% of English language learners (ELL) in Dubuque public schools are proficient in language arts and about 16% are proficient in math.

These low levels of proficiency may be correlated with chronic absenteeism – whether as a cause or a result. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10% of days in a school year, which generally translates to 15-20 days absent. It is a predictor of low academic success and which students may drop-out entirely. Students who are chronically absent are at higher risk for “poor labor market prospects, diminished health, and increased involvement with the criminal legal system.” Chronic absenteeism of foreign-born students K-12 has been a growing problem in the post-Covid era:  One-third of all students in the Dubuque County School District are chronically absent. For the significant Marshallese community, 80% of students are chronically absent, impacting not just the individual success of one child or one family, but the future of the larger community. 

There are several hypotheses as to why the Marshallese community has such dire rates of chronic absenteeism: post-Covid trauma; extreme caution regarding illness; shifting family dynamics, making more youth responsible for childcare; desire to preserve traditional Marshallese culture and language; communication challenges between the school district and families in the community; and cultural differences related to the prioritization of formal education, time, and family.  Once students disconnect from the school experience, it is difficult re-engage them. Chronic absenteeism can become truancy:  This, in turn, may lead to criminal prosecution or delinquency referrals to the County Attorney and problematic law enforcement interventions in the immigrant community, which threaten community relationships with schools, nonprofits, and the larger government.

The client is the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, whose mission is to “strengthen communities and inspire giving” and to build “a vibrant and inclusive Dubuque region with resources and opportunities for all” through philanthropy, partnerships, and systemic change. The client retained CELP to explore the causes of chronic absenteeism and potential models to address it. Questions raised by the project may include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the school experience of Marshallese youth? 
  • What policy or practice changes could decrease chronic absenteeism and/or prevent law enforcement intervention?
  • How could the school system improve the communication/engagement structure with the Marshallese community? What role does language access play in this structure?
  • Are there models or best practices for addressing chronic absenteeism in general and in immigrant communities, in particular?
A group of five school-aged people with brown skin stand in a row and look to the side.
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