Absenteeism at RPS is down 1.8 percent, but remains high

Holly Rodriguez | 1/5/2023, 6 p.m.
Chronic absenteeism among school-aged children who miss 10 percent of days or more due to excused and unexcused absences continues …
Mr. Kamras

Chronic absenteeism among school-aged children who miss 10 percent of days or more due to excused and unexcused absences continues to plague school systems, including Richmond Public Schools, throughout the country.

While Dr. Shadae Harris, RPS’ chief engagement officer, said the COVID-19 pandemic and a year of online learning for RPS students further increased those numbers, data presented at Monday night’s school board meeting shows the school system has a long way to go before reaching numbers set forth in the Dreams 4 RPS strategic plan presented to the School Board in 2018.

In December of 2021, 27.7 percent of RPS students were chronically absent, the highest number during Superintendent Jason Kamras’s administration. The number barely budged a year later, dropping only 1.8 percentage points to 25.9 percent in December of 2022.

In a phone interview with the Richmond Free Press, Dr. Harris insisted RPS attendance rates continue to be impacted by the pandemic, and numbers need to be observed in the context of circumstances beyond the district’s control.

“We had a spike in these numbers last year - right after [many people were sick with] Omicron - to almost 37 percent,” she said. “From there, we have really improved those numbers.”

The data presented during Dr. Harris’s presentation to the School Board on Monday indicated that the small progress that has been made over last year’s chronic absenteeism rates mostly can be attributed to Black students, with 33 percent chronically absent in 2021 compared with 31 percent last month. In all other categories tracked by RPS — white students, Hispanic, disabled, disadvantaged and English-learning students — the numbers of chronically absent students increased year-over-year by as much as 10.9 percent.

When the superintendent put forth his strategic plan in 2018, the pandemic was unanticipated. But, the goal was to bring chronic absenteeism down from 19 percent to 9 percent by the end of the 2022-2023 school year. However, during Mr. Kamras’s tenure, chronic absenteeism was increasing before the pandemic. In the 2018-2019 school year, his first year, the division was at 15.7 percent; in 2019-2020, the number jumped to 19 percent and in 2020-2021, to 19.5 percent.

What changed?

Kenya Gibson, 3rd District School Board representative, said the pandemic is a factor but not a main cause of chronic absenteeism. “We do ourselves a disservice to blame the pandemic for this — these issues go back for some time,” she said in a statement to the Richmond Free Press. “In 2019, the district eliminated 17 attendance officers from the budget to save money . . . when attendance dropped, the administration requested funding to add the positions back, but it came at a cost.”

She went on to explain that “state fund- ing hinges on kids showing up at school.” She also said the school board has changed school start times and bus routes — a real hurdle for some families.

During her presentation, Dr. Harris said the goal for RPS is to be more data-driven and focus on students trending toward chronic absenteeism.

The school district also plans to work more with the students and their families to deter them from that path.

Her team is now using a data portal that has tracked their engagement strategy, which has included 700 documented outreach attempts to 200 students. The outreach includes phone calls, home visits with students and their families and com- munity events. The approach has worked well, decreasing chronic absenteeism by 10 percent at Fairfield Court Elementary, Albert Hill Middle and Lucille Brown Middle schools over the past year. John Marshall High School was the shining start of improvement, decreasing chronic absenteeism by 19 percent in the last year.

“The first step was finding tools to support leaders, and now we can use those tools to drive the work,” Dr. Harris said during Monday’s meeting. “We are seeing that begin to happen, but not in all of the schools just yet.”

Jonathan Young, 4th District, said the solution needs to come from a deeper place than data-driven strategies.

“This is a colossal failure,” he said, of the reported data.

In a phone interview with the Richmond Free Press, Mr. Young said he is frustrated, but remains sure the district can reach the 9 percent strategic goal. “The goals are achievable, but the strategy, the approach we’ve adopted isn’t doing it,” he said. “Let’s prioritize relationship- building where, above all, our students are treated like individuals.”

The district’s ultimate failure in approach, he said, is a centralized focus for a solution.

“What matters most is the student as a whole child; the relational value with the student.”

While Dr. Harris said she believes collecting and analyzing data is necessary to further address the problem, she agrees that relationship development also is key.

“We want to continue with the high-impact engagement practices where we are seeing impact, and in co-creating support plans with families,” she said. “We want to make sure the quality of these plans is top-notch.”