A quarter of students in Hartford and Bridgeport are absent from school on a regular basis, and almost half of the high school students in Bridgeport are considered chronically absent, according to school district administrators.
School districts are starting to identify individual students who are not making it to school on a regular basis, and are trying to get the community involved in efforts to improve student attendance.
Ten years ago the state asked for a report on how to boost school attendance for Latino students, but now a decade later, many students are still “chronically absent,” particularly in urban school districts.
This push to get students to show up at school isn’t new – administrators and teachers have known for a long time that kids who don’t show up can’t learn the material, which is why most districts already have attendance policies in place. But up until now there hasn’t been an effort to measure and address chronic student absence on a student-by-student level in a systematic way.
Both Hartford and Bridgeport are now working on identifying students who are missing too much school, and are trying to get them to start attending regularly.
But getting kids to school requires a community effort, said Eduardo Genao, assistant superintendent for early literacy and parent engagement for Hartford Public Schools.
“People ask what is the school doing about it, but it should be what are we doing about it as a city, a community, a neighborhood,” he said.
Right now the state requires schools to track average daily attendance – and most districts end up looking pretty good by that measurement. Hartford has an average daily attendance rate of 90 percent, and Bridgeport’s is 92 percent.
But those figures mask the larger problem. Genao said when they started tracking chronic absence, they saw that 25 percent of school children in Hartford fit into that category.
A child is considered chronically absent if she or he misses more than 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days of a 180-day calendar, whether the absences are excused or unexcused.
Hartford started measuring how many students were chronically absent last year as part of a larger national effort to gets kids reading at grade level, said Genao. The district now sends monthly reports tracking individual student attendance to school administrators.
Genao said the data show that some of the largest absentee rates are for children in pre-k and kindergarten, and children who are chronically absent in the early years are less likely to be reading at grade level by third grade.
Other research shows that children who miss too much school perform poorly on standardized tests, particularly in math, and are much less likely to graduate than their regularly attending peers.
In Bridgeport, the school district has also started sending regular reports to schools detailing which students are not attending school regularly, said Michael Mulford, executive director of student support services.
Bridgeport has a student absence policy that outlines what schools should do when a child starts missing school regularly, including letters home, parent meetings, and sending a liaison to the home. But Mulford said the district has found it is difficult for the schools to follow the requirements because of staffing levels and other issues.
In Bridgeport, 25 percent of all students are chronically absent, while 49 percent of high school students are chronically absent, he said.
Mulford said the district is trying to get to the root of the problem by addressing the social and emotional needs of its students, including those who are chronically absent. The district is adopting the RULER approach, designed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. RULER stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotion.
It is also important to send clear messages to parents, Mulford said. Parents are allowed to excuse their children from up to nine days of schools for any reason, which can send a mixed message, he said.
He pointed out that it is also important not to penalize students or parents for absence due to illness.
This year the state took up a bill that would have required school districts to form a district-wide attendance review team if the district has more than a 10 percent chronic student absence rate, and to add the chronic absentee rate to the school’s profile.
The bill made it out of committee, and was passed by the House, but was not taken up by the state Senate.