RPS struggles with student absenteeism still present

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/18/2023, 6 p.m.
More than 4,700 students in Richmond Public Schools have missed 15 or more days of classes, many because of housing ...

More than 4,700 students in Richmond Public Schools have missed 15 or more days of classes, many because of housing instability, the School Board was told Monday night.

The good news: That’s an improvement from a year ago when 5,200 students missed 10 percent or more of the school year, the definition of chronic absenteeism, Dr. Shadae Harris, RPS’ chief engagement officer reported.

The bad news: RPS is still falling far short of its goal of having 9% or fewer students chronically absent and is still experiencing levels of absenteeism that exceed the already alarming percentage of students who were chronically absent before the pandemic.

Dr. Harris noted that the team she has assembled to deal with absenteeism has already made more than 41,000 calls and home visits with parents and missing students, a 17% increase from a year ago.

The school system also has installed improved technology to better track attendance and missing students, she said, ensuring a more efficient, data-driven process.

The main focus of the work is to build relationships with families, she said, to overcome barriers that are interfering with the education of their children.

She told the board that the data shows the approach is having an impact, with overall chronic absenteeism falling from 25% in May 2022 to the current 22%, although that is still higher than the 19% rate of chronic absenteeism reported for the 2019-2020 school year when the pandemic hit.

Still, absenteeism among Black students, who are the largest single ethnic group RPS serves, have a chronic absenteeism rate of 27%, which is significantly higher than the rate for white

and Latino students. The struggle to get families to ensure their children are in class daily continues even as the school system spends more to educate fewer students.

Since 2019, Richmond’s contribution for public education, including the share of local sales tax that RPS receives, has jumped 38% to $253 million, while enrollment has fallen 14% in the same period.

On Sept. 30, Richmond schools reported enrolling 21,709 students in Pre-K through 12th grade, down 3,506 students from the 25,212 students reported as enrolled on Sept. 30, 2019. That’s enough students to fill five elementary schools or at least two high schools.

Dr. Harris highlighted 10 schools where fewer students were chronically absent, including Swansboro Elementary School, where the percentage of chronically absent students fell from 39 percent in the 2021-22 school year to 11 percent during the current school year.

But chronic absenteeism is rife at other schools, such as Armstrong High School. The school reported enrolling 747 students in September, of which 276 or 37% have missed 15 or more days of school.

A sampling of other schools where chronic absenteeism remains high include: George Wythe High School, 34%; Albert Hill Middle, 24%; River City Middle, 27%; Blackwell Elementary, 28%; Carver Elementary, 36%; Fairfield Court Elementary, 36%; Henry Marsh III Elementary, 30 percent; Oak Grove Elementary, 39%; and Woodville Elementary, 36 percent.