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Report: RRPS has chronic absenteeism problem

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Rio Rancho Public Schools is above average for chronic absenteeism among students, according to a new national report, but district administrators have concerns about the data.

The review of federal statistics, released earlier this month by the advocacy group Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center, classified 2,892 RRPS kids as chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year – 17 percent of total enrollment. These students missed at least 15 days of school, whether excused or unexcused, which impacts their grades and increases the likelihood that they will drop out altogether.

Across the country, 13 percent of the student body, or 6.5 million kids, was listed as chronically absent. The problem is heavily concentrated – about half of these students live in just 4 percent of districts.

Rio Rancho was among that small percentage, as were Hobbs, Las Cruces, Roswell, Santa Fe and Clovis. The latter two districts each had absenteeism rates that top 30 percent, more than double the national average.

Albuquerque Public Schools wasn’t included in the analysis because its data initially were submitted in the wrong format, according to district spokesman Rigo Chavez. The numbers were resent to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Chavez said, but they did not get to the researchers.

Robert Balfanz, head of the Everyone Graduates Center and the study’s co-author, said the federal government has just started collecting chronic absenteeism figures. Roughly 5 percent of districts failed to supply it for one reason or another.

“Any time you ask something new of the schools, there are glitches,” he said.

RRPS is concerned that those glitches impact the report’s overall findings.

District spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said administrators “see some significant problems with their dataset as it is incomplete, incorrect in some cases and not certified.”

She stressed that attendance is critical for student success and highlighted the district’s efforts to address missed class days.

“In the cases of students who have a couple excused absences a month equaling 15+ a school year, our goal would be to work with parents to help them better understand the importance of students being in school and the impact even a few days absent can have on instruction and student learning,” Pendergrass said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, there is nothing that prevents a parent from excusing a student from school for that amount of time so long as it meets the requirements of an excused absence.”

Very few RRPS students are skipping school – truancy numbers are less than 2 percent.

Historically, districts have tracked only truancy, unexcused absences, but the new report stresses that kids fall behind if they are away from class for any reason.

“Chronic absence is really a proven early indicator of academic risk, starting as early as preschool and kindergarten,” said Hedy Chang, co-author and director of Attendance Works. “We still know from the work we do on the ground that many, many people do not realize that just missing two days a month can throw you off track for academic success.”

Nationally, poor urban areas such as Baltimore, Milwaukee and Philadelphia had some of the worst absenteeism rates, with almost 60 percent of Detroit’s student body missing 15 or more school days.

The report also shows that some wealthier suburban areas, like Rio Rancho, also struggle with absenteeism, a reflection of “the sheer size of the districts and their growing populations of low-income students.”