3,800 Providence students were absent at least 30 days last year

Classroom desks (WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The chronic absenteeism rate in Providence public schools soared to 37.6% during the 2016-17 school year, with more than 3,800 students missing at least 30 days of school.

An Eyewitness News review of the city’s student attendance data shows chronic absenteeism – defined as missing at least 18 days during any school year – increased by five percentage points last year. Approximately 15% of students were absent for 30 or more days, meaning they missed at least six weeks of classroom time.

The uptick in absenteeism occurred throughout the district, with the chronic absence rate rising to 28.8% in elementary schools, 33.7% in middle schools and 54.6% in high schools. Of the students labeled chronically absent, the average number of days missed was 33, records show.

“We know that students that are chronically absent are much less likely than their peers to graduate from high school and be successful,” Superintendent Chris Maher told Eyewitness News. “It is common sense. If you show up to school, you will learn. If you don’t, you can’t.”

It doesn’t take mountains of research to understand the importance of attending school, but the tracking of chronic absenteeism is still a relatively new practice in education. For years, schools have reported their average daily attendance rates, but individual student absenteeism has emerged as a significant data point in policy circles over the last decade.

Providence was one of the first districts in the country to begin regularly tracking chronic absenteeism, but Maher said it remains one of the most difficult issues to address in education. He said the district has improved its attendance rates in recent years, but acknowledged it took a step backward last year.

It’s not easy to pinpoint why students miss so much school, although Maher said Providence’s child asthma rates are higher than average. In a survey taken by Providence students in grades six through 12 last year, 18% said they had missed at least one day of school because they didn’t get enough sleep; 12% said they had to take care of someone else; and 11% said it was boring.

Maher said absenteeism isn’t something the district can completely address on its own, noting that parents and guardians need to understand that large numbers of absences can create gaps in learning that are difficult to overcome. If a student is chronically absent during their first few years of school, they’re far less likely to be reading proficiently by the third grade, a key indicator of future success.

Rhode Island law requires students between the ages of six and 18 to be enrolled in school and guardians can be fined or jailed if they neglect to regularly send their children to class. The law states that guardians can be imprisoned for up to six months and fined up to $500 if their children miss more than 30 days of school, but it’s unclear if anyone has ever been jailed for violating the law.

Although statewide absenteeism rates for the 2016-17 school year haven’t been released, 26% of Rhode Island high school students were considered chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year. On the middle school level, 15% of students were chronically absent. And 12% of elementary school students missed at least 18 days of school.

In Providence, Maher said the district wants to identify students on track for being chronically absent early in the school year in order to prevent them from missing too many days of school.

“We need to identify students that are on pace to be chronically absent now,” Maher said. “It’s the end of September, we’re a month into school. Let’s look at kids that are on pace to be chronically absent. We need to target those students and their families.”

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