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Over 7,800 Providence Students Were ‘Chronically Absent’ Last Year

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Just under a third of the 24,176 students enrolled in Providence Public Schools in 2011/12 were absent at least 18 days and 11.7 percent missed at least 36 days, according the data released by the Providence School Department.

The city’s chronic absence numbers (those missing at least ten percent of the school year) were down 3.7 percentage points from the previous year, but may still be as much as three times higher than the national average, which experts suggest is between ten and 15 percent.

A grade-by-grade breakdown shows chronic absenteeism becomes a problem as soon as children enter kindergarten and then tapers off slightly for the rest of elementary school before increasing significantly as student enter their teenage years.

By high school, the absentee crisis takes full effect. If you had a 9th grader attending school in Providence, they were just as likely to miss school as they were to show up (52.1 percent). The overall high school chronic absenteeism rate: 48.6 percent.

“Chronic absenteeism is most often the result of a combination of school, family and community factors,” said Stephanie Geller, a policy analyst for Rhode Island Kids Count. “So the best ways to address the problem are to form school-family-community partnerships and to monitor attendance and contact parents as soon as troubling patterns of attendance appear -- before a student reaches the level of being chronically absent.”

Geller said a student’s absenteeism may be related to a health problem the child or his/her parent has, a lack of transportation or concerns about school safety or bullying. Sometimes, it also comes down to a parents’ lack of understanding of the importance of attending school, particularly in the earliest grades.

In Providence, just under a quarter of elementary schools were considered chronically absent (24.3 percent). In kindergarten, 31.6 percent of children missed at least 18 days of school

“Regardless of why they are absent, children who miss school are more likely to fall behind academically than children who attend school regularly,” Geller said. “Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten have lower levels of reading and math achievement in the first grade. And among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten can predict low educational achievement as far out as the fifth grade. In addition, research has shown that chronic absenteeism in middle school is a strong predictor that a student will eventually drop out.”

High School Rates are High

And in schools with the highest dropout rates, chronic absenteeism is also prevalent.

At Dr. Jorge Alvarez, where the 5-year graduation rate was 71.9 percent in 2011, 64.8 percent of students missed at least 18 days.

At Mount Pleasant, where the 5-year graduate rate was 60.8 percent in 2011, 58.9 percent of students were chronically absent.

Similarly, at Central High School, where the 5-year graduation rate was 70.2 percent in 2011, 58.9 percent missed at least 18 days.

“High schoolers’ behavior usually reflects a variety of issues that have built up over time that may lead to chronic absenteeism,” said education consultant Lisa Blais. “Prior to legislation that prevented kids from dropping-out at 18, chronic absenteeism typically resulted in these kids formally dropping-out at 16. But, the real question is: Have each of the schools and the district determined who these kids are and created a plan to address the individual issues?”

Until recently, the answer was no.

In May, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University released a report titled, “Chronic Absenteeism: Summarizing What We Know From Nationally Available Data.” The researchers, Dr. Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes, found that very few states have systems in place to track chronic absenteeism.

“America’s education system is based on the assumption that barring illness or an extraordinary event, students are in class every weekday,” Balfanz and Byrnes wrote in their report. “So strong is this assumption that it is not even measured. Indeed, it is the rare state education department, school district or principal that can tell you how many students have missed 10 percent or more of the school year or in the previous year missed a month or more school − two common definitions of chronic absence.”

The report suggested that communities need to re-evaluate how they look at absenteeism. For example, a school’s daily attendance rate may be high, but it could still have a significant portion of its students missing on different days. Often times it’s not the students who miss a week at a time that fall off the radar; it’s the student who miss a day or two each week for the entire year.

“Students need to attend school daily to succeed,” the report found. “The good news of this report is that being in school leads to succeeding in school. Achievement, especially in math, is very sensitive to attendance, and absence of even two weeks during one school year matters. Attendance also strongly affects standardized test scores and graduation and dropout rates. Educators and policymakers cannot truly understand achievement gaps or efforts to close them without considering chronic absenteeism.”

What Providence is Doing

In Providence, Geller said leaders are making strides to address the city’s chronic absence problems. Last fall, the city invited Hedy Chang, a national leader in the campaign to reduce chronic absenteeism to host a workshop for educators. In March, the school district and principals held a strategy session to discuss ways to combat absenteeism.

“As part of this citywide campaign to increase the percentage of Providence children reading proficiently by the end of third grade, the campaign will strive to reduce the chronic early absence rate or rate of kindergarten through 3rd graders who miss 18 or more days of school, which represents 10% of the school year, by 5% by 2017,” Geller said.

It’s all part of the Mayor’s strategy to increase early reading proficiency, according to Geller. At some “full-service community schools,” such as Bailey Elementary School, there is already an effort being made to reduce chronic early absence rates. Geller said the Mayor is hoping to replicate those efforts throughout the district.

“The Mayor is leading an important effort to improve reading proficiency by the end of third grade,” she said. “This initiative is working to ensure that more children enter kindergarten ready to learn and prepared for school, increasing access to high-quality summer learning opportunities and increasing attendance in the early grade. The city has received recognition as an All-America City for its work on improving grade-level reading.”



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