Montgomery schools ready to fight absenteeism, on the rise after covid

Nicole Asbury Washington Post August 24th 2023

Montgomery County Public Schools announced a slate of initiatives Tuesday to tackle a rise in chronicstudentabsenteeismsince the onset of the pandemic.

Most of the plan focuses on conducting additional analysis, like reviewing student absenteeism data by factors such as day of the week, course and teacher, to understand more of the root causes. The district is putting new platforms in place to allow school teams to review student data in real-time, and will develop school-specific plans — including engaging with parents — to try to remove obstacles that would prevent a student from getting to the classroom.F

Chronic absenteeism— generally defined as when a student misses more than 10 percent of school days for any reason — surged nationally during the pandemic. At least 10.1 million students were chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year, the first full school year of the pandemic, according to federal data; that was 25 percent more than the typical 8 million students who were chronically absent each yearpre-pandemic.ADVERTISING

Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school district with about 160,000 students, saw a similar trend. About 27 percent, or about 43,000 students, were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year. By comparison, about 20 percent, or 30,300 students, were chronically absentduring 2018-19.Hispanic, Black and low-income students had higher rates of absenteeism, data shows.

School officials said intervention efforts are most sorely needed at the high school level, where about 36 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year.

“We know there are a confluence of factors that impact this issue,” Damon Monteleone, the district’s associate superintendent of well-being, learning and achievement, said during a news conference. He pointed to an ongoing youth mental health crisis and said some of the district’s students “may not feel welcome” in their school community.

Student absenteeism skyrocketed in the pandemic as test scores plunged

Research shows students who are chronically absent are less likely to be reading on grade level by third grade, and are more likely to score lower on standardized tests and get suspended in middle school. They also are at greater risk of dropping out of high school.

In the past, the Montgomery County school district used to tie final grades to attendance — if a student was absent over a certain number of days, they wouldn’t receive credit in a class. However, that policy shifted about 10 years ago to give teachers more discretion: If a student was unexcused from class over a certain number of days, teachers called parents and put an attendance intervention plan in place, with supplemental academic work to help determine a grade.Share this articleShare

Monteleone said that process “was highly variable.”

“To be straight, there were some schools that were doing it with fidelity; there were some schools that were not doing it with fidelity,” he said. “Because of the varied nature of this … we really started before the pandemic to rethink our approach.”

Under the new approach, a variety of school employees will now be involved in intervening in cases, Monteleone said. During the pandemic, the school system hired people into several types of positions focused on student well-being, such as mental health staff members.

Data from Montgomery County schools shows that low-income students and students of color were more likely to be chronically absent. Nearly 18 percent of Black students were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year, and about 30 percent of Black students enrolled in the district’s free-and-reduced lunch program were chronically absent. Thirty-two percent of Hispanic students were chronically absent, and about 42 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in free-and-reduced lunch programs were chronically absent.

Meanwhile, about 15 percent of other students were chronically absent, the district said.

“There’s a clear correlation … between financial insecurity and attendance rates,” Monteleone said. “And we know we must do a better job of engaging our Hispanic community.”

The school district’s six-page planalso said it would consult the findings of its “anti-racism audit,”to see if there is information about the district’s culture and climate that might affect absenteeism. Thesystemwide review found that students of color had less satisfactory experiences than their White peers.

Steven Neff, director of pupil personnel and attendance services, said the school system is working with national experts on attendance to improve its approaches.

The plan also delineated responsibilities for counselors, social workers, school nurses and other employees on how to address chronic absenteeism. Social workers are directed to help students whose mental health needs may be impacting attendance, and nurses are asked to guide students whose medical conditions are making them miss class.