'They're behind, perpetually': APS battles absenteeism - Albuquerque Journal

‘They’re behind, perpetually’: APS battles absenteeism

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Abby Morehead’s classroom last year was a lively, engaging place to learn.

The Polk Middle School dual language social studies teacher covered her classroom walls with maps, paintings she bought in Puerto Rico and drawings of the family crests of her students, all in an effort to make her classroom an immersive and focused place to learn.

But empty chairs always seemed to haunt the room, creating an undeniable sense of emptiness in otherwise intimate classes.

On any given day in recent years, Morehead estimated around 20% of her students – most of whom were first-generation Americans and English learners – were missing. Toward the end of last year, she said closer to 45% of the students in one of her classes was regularly missing.

“When I have a classroom where I’m missing students, I find myself lamenting every word that I say, because I know that they’re never going to hear it,” she told the Journal. “It (feels) like – ‘Should we even proceed?'”

That problem isn’t unique to her classroom, or Polk.

Across Albuquerque Public Schools, nearly 43% of students were considered chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the district’s data dashboard. In the 2018-2019 school year, absenteeism was a little over 23%, before dipping to just under 16% the year after.

The average daily attendance last year was about 88% across the district, roughly 7 percentage points lower than the year before.

A student is considered chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of the school days they were enrolled for. For students at schools on traditional academic calendars, that’s about 18 instructional days. For those on extended calendars, it’s around 19.

But it’s worth pointing out that missing 10% of the school year is just the threshold to be considered chronically absent. As of early December 2021, Morehead said three eighth graders in her third period class alone had already missed over half the semester. Eight more had surpassed the 10% threshold.

Attendance is crucial to learning, district officials say. But chronic absenteeism isn’t an easy problem to solve.

“We want school to be a place kids want to be. Problem is, a lot of times families have issues at home,” Superintendent Scott Elder told the Journal. “‘I’m sorry, you have to stay home – I need you to watch your younger sibling, I need you to take care of grandma today.’ These things happen.”

Barriers

There’s no one answer to why students consistently don’t show up for school, in part because it’s a national problem, Director of Attendance Supports Elizabeth Calhoon said.

She likes to picture four major buckets of reasons for why students consistently miss school: They don’t want to come for reasons including bullying, not having friends and not liking their teacher; they don’t “understand the impact” of attending school; illnesses – which can include issues related to COVID-19; and things that come with generational poverty, like food or housing insecurity and a student having a job in order to support the family.

Sometimes, she noted, students have several reasons for being chronically absent, and they can be categorized into several buckets.

“It’s just not simple. It’s complex and complicated,” Calhoon said.

Anecdotally, Morehead said that from going back into students’ attendance records, she finds that the kids who are chronically absent in middle school showed similar patterns in elementary school.

According to district data, nearly 49% of elementary school students were chronically absent last year.

The pandemic also had a devastating – but somewhat delayed – impact on chronic absenteeism.

Numbers didn’t jump immediately when schools shifted to remote learning. Instead, they soared from about 16% in the 2020-2021 school year to nearly 43% for the last school year, when the district was moving back to in-person learning.

Calhoon attributed that to spikes in COVID-19 cases, which would force students to stay home for at least 10 days in some cases and result in swollen absenteeism numbers since both excused and unexcused absences are counted.

Cultural and language barriers are also huge factors that play into why some 47% of APS’ 14,354 English learners chronically didn’t show up to school last year, Director of Bilingual Programs Angelo Archuleta said.

“Those kids come to school knowledgeable. They’re smart, they’re intelligent, they’re able to learn,” he said. “Their only barrier is language.”

And there’s a lot of overlap between students who face those language barriers and those facing situations at home that pull them away from the classroom, Translation & Interpretation Services Coordinator Sindy Flor added.

“We have a lot of immigrant families, there’s a lot of movement and transitory kinds of situations,” she said. “It’s hard to keep those kids engaged, and it’s hard to keep them in routines.”

Students receiving special education have their own barriers that make coming to school difficult, Exceptional Student District Specialist Lisa Oliphant said, including extenuating circumstances stemming from medical conditions.

About 52% of those students were considered chronically absent last school year.

Ramifications

Consistently missing school days has a bigger impact on students than a few zeroes on a report card – especially as time goes on.

“It snowballs,” Morehead said. “They miss all this school in elementary school, they miss those key skills, and they don’t get them back. And then they’re behind, perpetually.”

And it’s not just an individual problem, Morehead says. There are ramifications that ripple throughout the classroom, complicating group work and forcing teachers to face difficult decisions about whether to leave absent students behind, or spend time catching them up.

“Is that fair to the kids who weren’t there? Maybe it wasn’t their fault that they weren’t,” Morehead said. “Or is that fair for the kids who are there every single day?”

Usually, she said, chronically absent students don’t end up doing makeup work for the time they miss. And even when they do, they don’t gain much from learning after the fact.

“They just don’t have the context, there hasn’t been a discussion,” she said. “It kind of seems like it just goes in one ear and out the other … sixth graders, seventh graders – they’re not at the age where they can just read a text and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I get it now.'”

In high school, students have to pass core classes in order to graduate, Calhoon said, adding that missing class for elementary and middle schoolers can still mean struggles later on because they miss out on building basic skills needed in higher grades.

Fixes

Just like there’s no one reason for the problem, there’s no easy solution to it, Calhoon said.

First and foremost, the district aims to help students as directly as possible with school-level teams who make it their mission to identify students who are showing up to school less and less and then reach out to their families – not to scold, but to figure out what’s going on.

“The idea behind that is … ‘How can we support them to keep the students in school?’ Because in the past, it was very punitive,” she said. “The key to it is … really developing relationships with the families, getting to the root cause of why the student isn’t coming, and then finding the interventions that can help that student come.”

And then schools do whatever they can to help. If a student is sick, or has a health issue, it may mean getting the school nurse involved, Calhoon said. If they need new shoes, the school can work to make that happen.

Teams are typically made up of a few core people, Calhoon said – school nurses, social workers, counselors, student deans and someone from school leadership, like a principal or assistant principal. After that, teachers fill out the ranks of the teams.

But having school staff who moonlight as stewards of absenteeism presents obvious difficulties, Calhoon said, because it’s not easy to teach classes or run a school and then call up families about why their student isn’t coming in.

“It’s very difficult work, and it’s time consuming,” she said.

That’s why it’s critical to try to catch the problem early, because it becomes harder to intervene the more students accrue absences, Calhoon said.

At the end of the day, many in APS say it comes down to finding ways to make kids want to come to schools.

Elder pointed to “Genius Hours” in schools – an extra hour or so tacked onto the end of the day allowing students to delve into subjects and activities that interest them – as something that’s motivating kids to show up to school.

“They’re seeing a real change there, because those kids don’t want to miss school,” he said.

Having reached out to families to check up on attendance issues, Morehead agreed it does help. Still, she said the problem isn’t one that can be solved with a single answer.

And it’s already creeping into the current school year, she noted.

After only about a week and a half since Polk started the new school year, Morehead said she’s already had issues with absenteeism, with one student having only come to school two days so far.

“Kids attending school is the bare minimum of what we need to have a functioning education system,” Morehead said. “We can implement all of the curriculum … that we want, but if the students aren’t in their seats in the classroom, then it’s all for naught.”

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