Schenectady City School District students continued to miss school in high numbers in the second quarter of the school year, with well over one-third of students having missed 18 or more school days halfway through the year.
District and school leaders have moved to stanch the persistent attendance challenges, aiming to get consistently-absent students into new learning pods located at school buildings and establishing a district team of social workers, counselors and other staff focused specifically on improving attendance.
“We continue to be very concerned about student attendance,” Schenectady High School Principal Chris Chank told the school board Wednesday night during the district’s second quarterly report of the year.
At the school year’s halfway point, 35 percent of students in first through eighth grade had missed 18 or more days of school, and nearly 43 percent of high school students missed 18 or more days – the equivalent of 10 percent of the entire school year. (Each quarter of the year encompasses about 45 days of school.)
With still half of the year to go, the district has already fallen short of its goal for the entire year. More students missed 18 or more days in the first half of the year than district officials had targeted would happen for the entire school year.
The attendance data, included as part of quarterly reports to the school board, has long signaled deep attendance challenges in the district. But with the district’s secondary schools closed until recently and elementary students learning partly online and partly in school, the attendance problems reached new heights in the fall. The numbers of elementary and middle school students missing a large number of school days surged in the first quarter: while 37 elementary students missed 20 or more days during the first quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, over 550 elementary students missed 20 or more days during the first quarter of this school year. The middle school level also experienced a major increase in students missing a significant number of school days.
Schoolwide attendance rates dropped from the first quarter to second quarter at eight of the district’s 11 elementary schools, showing signs of improvement at three schools, Hamilton, Keane, and Martin Luther King Jr. schools. The overall attendance rates fell for students in seventh through 12th grades at all district buildings. Schenectady High School reported a 70 percent overall attendance rate (on average about 70 percent of the school’s students attend school on a given day), down from 76 percent in the first quarter of the year.
The district considers a student who missed 18 or more school days for the entire year – 10 percent of school – “chronically absent.” When students miss that much school they are far less likely to stay on track academically.
After retrenching in-person learning and other academic supports in the fall as district officials sought to brace for a potential 20 percent loss of state aid, district leaders in recent months have started to recall staff who had been laid off and reform teams focused on student interventions. A districtwide team of social workers, school counselors and paraprofessionals on a daily basis track student attendance and reach out to students and families in an effort to offer support in getting kids to attend school. As the district reopens school buildings to secondary students, hosting pods where students come to school to take their online classes, school leaders are working to get students struggling with attendance into those pods.
“Having more resources to reach more students and families will make a difference,” Chank said. “We are in the midst of implementing a full-court press around student attendance.”
The pandemic environment has also presented new challenges in counting student attendance, Chank said. When students don’t log in to a virtual class, they are counted absent, but sometimes those students still complete the work later in the day or were having technical problems, Chank said. So the high school included a new way to add notes to student attendance records.
School board member Bernice Rivera asked how to reconcile the persistent attendance problems, with the district’s projection of a nearly 75 percent graduation rate at the high school.
“When I see the graduation rates and we think they will be right on target, and we see at the same time we have attendance problems, I’m just wondering about that,” she said.
Chank said based on where students stand with course credits and Regents exams school leaders believe they are on track to near a 75 percent graduation rate but acknowledged they still need to ensure some students don’t miss out on class credits due to absences.
Board member Ann Reilly asked if the new learning pods would be used to support students with a high number of absences.
“That’s a huge reason for the pods,” acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said at Wednesday’s meeting, assuring board members that some of the targeted students were part of the new pods.
Despite the deep attendance challenges, more than 2,300 students across the district, about 25 percent, still recorded perfect attendance during the second quarter of the year, up slightly compared to the number of students with perfect attendance during the first quarter of the year, according to the district data.
“Congrats to all of these students and keep it up,” Sara Schneller, the district’s interim director of data and accountability, said Wednesday. “We are so glad you are here.”