Chronic absenteeism declining among RPS students

Ronald E. Carrington | 11/15/2018, 6 a.m.
This school year, the majority of Richmond Public Schools students are present and accounted for each school day. Harry Hughes, ...

This school year, the majority of Richmond Public Schools students are present and accounted for each school day.

Harry Hughes, chief of schools, reported during the Nov. 5 Richmond School Board meeting that the rate of RPS students missing school has decreased since the beginning of the school year.

Mr. Hughes’ presentation compared 2017 and 2018 data on student absences from the first 40 days of the school year.

“The chronic absenteeism rate has dropped from 16 percent to 14 percent, representing roughly 593 fewer chronically absent students,” Mr. Hughes informed the board.

Although the numbers are an early sign of improvement and a decline in chronic absenteeism, it is also one of the criteria used by the Virginia Department of Education in determining a school’s accreditation this year.

Also added to the measure for full accreditation are graduation and dropout rates, particularly at the high school level.

A school’s chronic absenteeism rate cannot be higher than 15 percent to be fully accredited.

RPS has three key challenges identified by Mr. Hughes: Transportation for homeless students in shelters and short-term motel placements across the city, suspensions and over-age and under-credited students.

Mr. Hughes said RPS needs to rethink suspension policies related to the “waiting period” between a student being referred for a suspension and the actual days of suspension that can be a delay of days, if not weeks, which only increases the chronic absenteeism rate.

VDOE data released in October shows that 20 percent of RPS students — one in five — are chronically absent at the high school and middle school levels. They are among the highest levels in Virginia.

Looking at all 44 public schools in Richmond, especially non-specialty high schools, Armstrong High School shows 34 percent of its students missed more than 10 percent of school, the district’s worst chronic absentee rate.

The latter is addressed in the Dreams4RPS, which was approved by the School Board in September, stating that schools should develop and implement “out of the box” learning and leadership experiences, trade-based and apprenticeship-based programs.

According to the data, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School has the highest improvement rate with just 12 percent of students being chronically absent this year compared with 20 percent last year.

All schools have launched an “Attendance Team” that meets regularly to identify and discuss students at risk of being chronically absent, maintains a database of these students, tracks the reasons for student absences and outlines steps school personnel have taken to intervene.

“Attendance officers have been required to set attendance goals around their caseload of students and are reviewed by my office,” Mr. Hughes told the board.

Richmond’s five comprehensive high schools have the lowest graduation rates, according to the state’s Education Trust report issued earlier this year.

By contrast, virtually all students at the city’s specialty high schools — Open, Richmond Community and Franklin Military Academy — have low absentee rates and the students graduated on time.

In any event, Mr. Hughes said, “We still have a long way to go.”