Six months after celebrating its highest graduation rate in a decade, Schenectady High School will look to welcome students back from a two-week winter break with a schoolwide “reboot” to address a crisis in student attendance.
The planned reset, branded as “In Class, All In,” comes amid troubling indicators of both student attendance and behavior along with a rise in parents expressing deep concerns to district officials about student safety.
Over 500 high school students missed at least 20 school days in the first quarter of the school year alone – a time frame that covers about 45 days – and the school doled out more than 40 suspensions of at least 10 days.
Along with the number of students failing three or more courses, nearly 800 students at the high school level, the number of chronically absent students and longterm suspensions in the first quarter reached their highest levels in at least four years, according to an analysis of the district’s quarterly reports.
“Today as a building we are taking the time to have a building-wide meeting and reboot our understandings around expectations for attendance,” reads a schoolwide message set to be shared with students Jan. 6, the first day back from break. “We are extremely concerned and worried that there are too many students not attending and/or severely late to school and class putting themselves in jeopardy of not graduating.”
During a Friday interview, High School Principal Diane Wilkinson described the “reboot” as a schoolwide effort that will not only set clear expectations around attendance but also engage students in a conversation about how to improve their own attendance.
“It’s not about standing and delivering this message, it’s about talking with our kids about it and to have them have an opportunity to reflect on their own behavior,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said the plan has been in the works for nearly a month – starting as school leaders saw signs that student attendance had dipped and was a persistent problem – and will be evaluated during an early-February teacher training day, during which high school staff will focus on its reboot while the rest of the district participates in a separate day of training.
“We are treating it as a crisis, and we are going to come together to do something about it,” Wilkinson said.
The draft reboot document, which has been refined in recent weeks, outlines a plan to reinforce expectations around attendance, classroom tardiness and hallway behavior when students return to school Jan. 6, while offering new rewards for attendance and tightening teacher guidelines for enforcing rules around student absences and tardiness.
The inauspicious start to the school year follows summer commencement ceremonies where the high school celebrated the first graduation rate to top 70 percent in over a decade.
But key indicators of whether students are on track to graduate are flashing warnings signs to school and district officials. Those warning signs were shared with the school board Wednesday during a presentation of the quarterly report on student academics, behavior and attendance.
District officials said the torrent of student absences was partly influenced by the around 300 high school and middle school students who missed school days at the start of the year until they met the state’s more stringent immunization requirements.
Still, 537 high school students missed 20 or more of the first 45 school days of the year, and another 425 high school students missed between 11 and 19 school days during the first quarter.
“That’s 20 percent of kids in the high school who have missed about half the days,” board member Andy Chestnut said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s hard to see how you can graduate if you are showing up half the time.”
In the first quarter, 795 high school students (which includes students at Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy and Washington Irving school) were failing three or more courses; that’s up from 644 during first quarter last school year.
And suspensions for the most serious violations – fights and weapons, for example, and lasting 10 or more days – increased from 15 during the 2017-2018 school year to 25 last school year to 41 this school year.
The string of negative indicators also comes amid a growing wave of parental concerns about student safety and school climate at the high school and across the district’s school buildings. Video of a serious fight in the high school’s hallway Monday morning circulated on social media last week, and a bevy of parents told the school board on Wednesday they fear for the safety and education of their children.
“It’s not just this woman’s son, it’s several fights going on in this building, several fights a day,” a parent with two high school students and a recent graduate said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We have to stop this madness.”
The draft plan set to roll out next month includes new incentives to reward students for strong attendance – including a weekly drawing for a pizza or bagel party to reward classes that had all of the students in class on time during the week – and guidelines for teachers to closely track students absent or late to class.
If a student is tardy to class up to three times, the teacher should have an “impromptu conversation” with the student, according to the guidelines. If the student is tardy more than three times, the teacher should call or email the student’s home and do so for every subsequent tardy.
If a student skips a class without a valid excuse, the student “is expected to make up the time with the teacher,” according the draft plan. The teacher should also call or email to the student’s home to explain that the teacher provided time for the student to make up the class. If the student skips class multiple times, the teacher should write a referral for a code of conduct violation. The guide to expectations also calls on students to minimize hallways disruptions and asserts a requirement they attend their study halls, called “Grad Prep” in the document.
On the first Monday back from break, teachers and administrators will roll out the plan to students, seeking to foster classroom discussions about the increasing focus on student attendance and its importance. Wilkinson said the new approach aims to communicate to students that school staff care deeply about them – and that’s why they need to get to class on time.
“I care about you this much, that you need to be in class, and I’m gonna help you come up with a plan to get there,” she said.