City schools tackle chronic absenteeism

City schools tackle chronic absenteeism

WOONSOCKET – The city’s school buildings have been full of activity lately, with improvements in security and wifi at the high school, a new playground and library at Kevin K. Coleman Elementary School and – after a brush with mold – newly replaced ceiling and roof at the Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center making appearances this year.

However, as Supt. Patrick McGee pointed out, classrooms are only as good as the amount of time students spend in them, and for the past three months, administrators have been working to crack down on a longstanding problem in the city’s schools that, for more than a third of students, keeps them out of the classroom more frequently than educators would like.

A chronically absent student is defined as a student who misses at least 10 percent, or 18 days, of the school year. According to data collected by Rhode Island Kids Count, in 2016-2017, Woonsocket had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism among elementary school students in the state, with 28 percent of students in grade K-3 missing 18 or more days of school. That number only gets worse as students get older, with 39 percent of students in grades 6-8 and 48 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported chronically absent.

“The older students get, the more onus is placed on them to get to school,” said McGee. “Typically at the elementary grades, if a student is not getting to school, it’s because the parents aren’t getting them to school.”

It’s not an isolated problem, according to McGee. Studies have linked chronic absenteeism to poverty, something Woonsocket has struggled with for many years. And it’s not determined by how often the rest of the district’s students show up to school. The district’s average daily attendance rate – the number of students in school on any given day – has actually gone up in recent years, but its chronic absentee rates remain stubbornly high, with the district-wide rate fluctuating between 30 and 40 percent over the past four years. By comparison, the city’s more affluent suburban neighbors have some of the lowest chronic absentee rates in the state, with 3 percent of K-3 students in Cumberland, 5 percent in North Smithfield and 1 percent in Lincoln (the lowest in the state) absent 18 or more days during the 2016-2017 school year.

“We have a lot of parents that walk their children to school, and one of the things that we see is when we have inclement weather, kids tend not to come to school,” said McGee, citing transportation as one of the issues behind the trend.

Two years ago, an attendance task force composed of school personnel, administrators and School Committee members developed a plan to create an attendance team at each school that would identify students who are chronically absent and reach out to those families on a monthly basis. While it’s too early to tell the long-term impact of the strategy, McGee is hopeful the plan will help students by establishing regular contact with families who might otherwise fall into chronic absenteeism.

“What that did is to put names and faces to the numbers, and it wasn’t just a percentage,” he said.

This year, the district followed up with the “Be Here” initiative, a public awareness campaign to make parents aware of the importance of getting their kids in school. The initiative, said McGee, is primarily focused on elementary school families. In addition to setting good habits for later in life, elementary school students who attend school regularly are less likely to fall behind or create a burden for other students in class, factors that could affect their performance or likelihood to graduate down the road.

“If a student is not reading on grade level by third grade, their chance of being retained in a grade grows dramatically,” he explained.

The initiative also features some creative solutions, including at Governor Pothier and Citizens Memorial Elementary Schools, where Principal Melissa Moniz and other staff members have created a “walking school bus.” Every Wednesday morning, they meet students across the street at Morin Heights to accompany them to school, knocking on doors if necessary. McGee said he’s looking forward to measuring the success of the initiative at the end of the year and may replicate the “walking school bus” in other schools.

As a last resort, school administrators can refer chronically absent students to a truancy officer, who gets involved if a student has more than 10 unexcused absences. While it’s not an ideal solution, the truancy court has, said McGee, been successful at getting kids back in school in the past.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with parents to make sure their children are attending school on a regular basis, he added. Once school social workers and community agencies have worked with families to identify the causes behind chronic absenteeism, it’s up to them to break the cycle and get kids in school.

“Either education is important to you or it’s not. We can help you, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make sure they’re going to school,” he said.

Comments

So there has been a lot of talk about the teachers lately, but one of the biggest problems remains with the parents. A teacher can not do his job if the parents do not do their jobs. We send our kids to school expecting the teachers and principals to "educate" them, but who spends more time with the kids? It is the parents and families. They are the child's "first" teachers. Perhaps our schools are not doing well because the teachers have been expected to do the job alone. Let's get the families involved in their education more!!

Yes, let's get these kids some new parents.