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Every Minute in School Matters: RCSD Continues Fight Against Chronic Absenteeism

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By Rodney Brown

 

absenteeism

Fifty percent of Rochester City School District (RCSD) students were chronically absent from school in 2012.

As a result, former RCSD superintendent Bolgen Vargas created an awareness initiative during his tenure with the district, in an effort to get the word out to parents, and the community, about chronic student absenteeism.

And, because of his door-to-door campaign, and decision to add more subjects such as art, music and sports in 2012, today the district has seen a decrease in chronic absenteeism, according to Jerome Underwood, RCSD’s senior director of Youth Development and Family Services.

“More sports and arts, to make school more attractive than the streets was the district’s intention,” Underwood stated. “In the past two years, we’ve added sports programs to the Franklin campus, East, Wilson Foundation, Early College, the Douglas campus, SOTA, Leadership Academy, Monroe, and Schools 3, 4,5,8,16,17,19,28,45 and 50. The sports added include modified football, lacrosse and cheerleading. Worthy of note is also the reemergence of the district’s marching band.”

Chronic Absenteeism has been defined as missing 10 percent or more school days per year, or 18 or more days in a 180-day calendar year.

And, according to Underwood, compared to 2015, the number of chronically absent RCSD has students decreased in all grade categories, with the most significant improvement having been in grades K-3, where there is currently only a 2.6 percent rate of chronically-absent students.

RCSD administrative officials have also recently said city students’ chronic rates of absenteeism are largely contributing to the district’s overall low graduation rates.

And, according to an Arizona State University Rodel Community Scholars study, the sentiment is accurate. The study tracked students from kindergarten through high school, and found dropout patterns have been linked with poor attendance, beginning in kindergarten.

“The attendance rate is important because students are more likely to succeed in academics when they attend school consistently,” Gregory Hickman, director of the Rodel Community Scholars Program, and former director of the Arizona Dropout Initiative, stated. “It’s difficult for the teacher, and the class, to build their skills, and progress, if a large number of students are frequently absent. In addition to falling behind in academics, students who are not in school on a regular basis are more likely to get into trouble with the law, and cause problems in their communities.”

According to Underwood, RCSD reported a reduction of 1,100 chronically-absent students in 2015, and, if each child in the district attended school 95 percent of the time, RCSD could almost guarantee every student would be successful. However, many parents have different challenges that, for them, may supersede the need to get their children to school every day.

The New York State Education Department, in a 2010 report, defined RCSD as being a high-poverty urban school district, with a higher percentage of minority students than any other urban school district in the state.

The study also found the district’s elementary student population to be 83.6 percent minority, with 84 percent of those students being eligible for free, or reduced-price lunches.

“Most of the reasons are couched in the economic situations our families find themselves in,” Underwood stated. “The challenges of substance abuse, physical abuse, mental-health issues, housing, unemployment, and transportation are some of the most common. Indeed, there’re parents who don’t have these challenges that are not holding up their ends of the bargain, so to speak. However, we find that these are a much smaller group. Part of our response to these realities is to create the awareness in the wider community of the correlation between attendance, and good academic outcomes. We hope this awareness will lead to behavior change in people who may not necessarily have children in the district. For example, the community can join the district in assisting parents who are experiencing the various challenges, such as engaging in the conversation around attendance and school; finding out that there are issues; referring parents to the various agencies (public or private) that provide the needed services; and giving rides where needed. We’re having some success with the community-collaboration piece, but we need to expand that. What we’re trying to do is match families with existing delivery systems that will able those families to deal with those adult situations, so they can embrace their responsibility of getting their kids ready for when the bus comes in the morning.”

The district has also added another technological tool to help combat chronic student absenteeism. According to Underwood, administrative officials can now track students in real-time, which allows opportunities for quicker intervention. The enhanced technology allows the district to track the student by school, grade, race, disability, English-learning curve, or by cohort, from the time they walk into the building, until the time they leave school.

“We have great data now, and the next step is for all of us, district employees and the general public, to develop the kind of relationships with families that will enable the kind of conversations where the specific challenges will be revealed, and then addressed,” he stated. “Our next community-wide attendance blitz will be on March 24, 9 a.m., at Central Office.”

According to Underwood district staff and volunteers will once again visit the homes of chronically-absent students during the blitz, and volunteers will inform families about the community resources available, in order to help them with the challenges that may prevent their children from attending school.

RCSD’s rate of chronically absent students:

Category Chronically Absent Students

(As of 2/21/16)

Improvement Chronically Absent Students

(2014-15)

Pre-K 53.2 percent 1.4 percent 54.6 percent
Elementary 24.5 percent 1.9 percent 26.4 percent
Secondary 43.9 percent 2.5 percent 46.4 percent
K-12 30.9 percent 2.3 percent 33.2 percent
K-3 26.1 percent 2.6 percent 28.7 percent

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