Stonington schools tackling chronic absenteeism
Stonington — The school district is working to reduce absenteeism and chronic absenteeism, which have soared in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Letters and communications to families, warnings of lost credits, a Saturday program and an “attendance war” among grades are some of the schools’ strategies to improve attendance.
At the October meeting of the Board of Education, Stonington High School Principal Alicia Dawe and Assistant Superintendent Timothy Smith said that chronic absenteeism across the state has risen to an average of 24 percent, more than double the 10 percent of students categorized as chronically absent prior to the pandemic.
A National Center for Education Studies report shows 72 percent of public schools show an increase in chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 15 or more days of school in a school year, and the New York Times has reported that, nationwide, chronic absenteeism has more than doubled since 2019.
Dawe stated the percentage at the high school was 27 percent in the 2021-22 school year.
She attributes part of the issue to the habits developed during the pandemic.
“The notion of being able to stay home, to log into your classes — It became a form of escapism from all the other social influences and stressors at school,” she said.
When the pandemic restrictions were lifted, all the issues and challenges returned, with mental health issues that had been exacerbated during the pandemic.
“I think nobody ever addresses, and nobody ever states, that the virtual world was successful for many students, and they thrived. We come back to business as usual, and our kiddos, who were thriving, are now struggling. It is a problem. We’ve had to start the year off doing some significant ... interventions,” she said.
The interventions Dawe and Smith have implemented take many forms, including letters and communications to families that express concern and warn of the potential for the loss of credit if a student misses eight classes, and even a Saturday school program.
The Saturday program will allow students to earn back credits lost by attending a weekly 2.5-hour school like setting with a certified teacher. Students will use Google Classroom and have support and time to complete missed work.
Dawe is also starting an attendance “war” between the grades at the high school — each Sunday, she monitors the previous week’s numbers and will report them to the students including, which grade had the best attendance the prior week.
The district is also creating various visual reminders of the importance of attendance including an infographic that hangs on a bulletin board in the most heavily trafficked hallway in the school that shows the impact of missing even a few minutes of school.
Twenty minutes late each day adds up to a total of 2.5 weeks of education time per year and almost a full year by the time they graduate high school, and one day per week adds up to eight lost weeks per school year and two and a half years of lost education time by graduation.
The interventions and strategies seem to be having an impact as absenteeism was down six percent at the end of October.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Dawe said, but added, “I’m not going to be comfortable until I do a mid-year check.” Ultimately, she says the results of their work will not be known until the conclusion of the school year, and she will continue to monitor the numbers until then.
Superintendent Mary Anne Butler said in a statement, “Stonington Public Schools is continuing its critical work on improving student engagement through the implementation of trauma-sensitive practices in grades K-12. This is one of the research-based practices in place to improve attendance rates and student achievement. The Leadership Team monitors student engagement data, performance data, and attendance data as all are clearly linked to one another.”