Thousands of RI students were ‘chronically absent’ last year

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – At least 30% of the students at more than two dozen elementary, middle and high schools across the state were absent 18 days or more during the 2011-12 school year, according to a WPRI.com review of data provided by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

In all, 17% of all Rhode Island students were labeled chronically absent – the term for students who miss 10% of the 180-day school year– in 2012 and 29 schools from nine communities saw at least 30% of their students absent at least 18 days.

The national average for chronic absenteeism is 10%, according to a study released in 2012 by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s very important that students attend school regularly,” Education Commissioner Deborah Gist told WPRI.com. “Students are not learning when they’re not in school, and chronic absenteeism can set students far behind their peers – sometimes leading to poor performance, retention in grade, or dropping out of school.”

Data shows six schools – the RYSE School in Chariho, Providence’s Hope High School, Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, Central High School, Mount Pleasant High School and the Construction Career Academy in Cranston – saw at least 50% of their students labeled chronically absent.

The high schools aren’t alone. Records show at least 30% of the students at 12 elementary and middle schools in Providence, Woonsocket, East Providence and Central Falls were also absent for at least 18 days.

Christina O’Reilly, a spokeswoman for Providence schools, told WPRI.com that chronic absenteeism undermines teachers’ best efforts to educate students. She said the city has ramped  up its tracking mechanisms to flag students who are at risk of becoming chronic absentees in an effort to address attendance problems.

“Gaps in knowledge have a compounding effect over time as students then struggle to understand concepts built upon that foundation,” O’Reilly said.

Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit organization that analyzes student attendance, said chronic absenteeism is one of the earliest indicators that a student may be at risk of falling behind in school or dropping out.

She said there are three main reasons students end up absent at least 10% of the school year: Discretion, which means parents or guardians don’t realize that missing even two or three days a month adds up by the end of the year; aversion, which means the student is likely being bullied; or real barriers such as transportation issues or poor health.

Chang said it is important for schools to understand why students are missing school, but too many do not track chronic absenteeism. Instead, schools monitor their average daily attendance, which often allows students to slip through the cracks, she said.

“Imagine missing one day every two weeks of algebra,” Chang said. “You miss some principles; you don’t get the rest of the concept. Anything that builds on each other, you have to be in school to learn. By the time a student has had chronic absence for three years is like the equivalent of missing half of ninth grade.”

In Central Falls, two schools saw at least 30% of their students miss at least 18 days and another school had a 23% chronic absenteeism rate. Superintendent Dr. Fran Gallo said the district had made “intensive efforts” – including hiring an attendance officer – to curb absenteeism, but it remains a problem.

“We have hardly made a dent in the chronic absentee rates,” Gallo told WPRI.com. “However, the community awareness of the problem is keen. The district is hopeful that with a little more push from all involved in the education of youth in Central Falls, the flywheel will soon spin of its own power.

Gallo said the district uses a phone system to make regular wake-up calls to students and parents make sure students are getting ready for school. She said attendance calls are made each day by secretaries and in some schools groups of parents.

Gist said she believes students, parents and teachers are all responsible for making sure students are attending school regularly.

“The most effective way of improving attendance is to make sure that students feel engaged, to make learning fun and exciting so that students want to come to school,” Gist said. “The question shouldn’t be: How do we enforce attendance requirements? The question should be: How do we make sure our schools are places where our students want to be every day?”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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