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Richmond Public Schools see rise in ‘chronically absent’ students

RPS reported nearly 28% of students are chronically absent at this point in the school year
RPS reported nearly 28% of students are chronically absent at this point in the school year(Akela Photography | Pexels)
Published: Jan. 19, 2022 at 8:16 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 19, 2022 at 11:33 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - During a school board meeting Monday night, Richmond Public Schools presented a problem they’ve been seeing throughout their school district - chronic absenteeism.

According to a presentation, nearly 28% of Richmond students are “chronically absent,” meaning they’ve missed seven or more days of school at this point in the year. That’s up from 19.5% last school year.

The Virginia Department of Education defines a student as “chronically absent” if they miss 10% or more (typically 18+ days) of the school year regardless of the reason for the absence.

Here are the numbers:

  • African American/Black: 33.0%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 20.8%
  • White: 14.4%
  • Economically disadvantaged: 33.4%
  • English Learner: 19.5%
  • Students with Disabilities: 32.9%

Over a five-year span of time, RPS has seen the most significant increase in absentee rates in the past two years. RPS says the most significant spike in absences happened around the same time as the spike of Omicron.

“It’s really important for us to be honest about the numbers, but also honest about the conditions our families are under during an unprecedented couple of years,” Shadae Harris said. “These are conditions that we know plagued our community prior to COVID and have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Harris is the Chief Engagement Officer for RPS. She says that while chronic absenteeism is an issue plaguing school systems across the nation, other factors unique to Richmond are exacerbating the problem.

Harris attributes the absence to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, increased neighborhood violence, and the transition from virtual to in-person learning and transportation challenges.

“Whether it’s direct loss or illness that they’ve suffered, whether it’s just a fear of sending their kids to school - that’s real,” Harris said. “We also have significantly been impacted by the amount of gun violence we’ve had in Richmond.”

An attendance strategy developed a year ago called the Community Hub Model is currently being employed, which includes a family liaison, CIS coordinator, and social workers going door to door to coordinate and discuss engagement and support strategies with families.

“Our Family Hub Model is based on having family liaisons in all of our neighborhoods in each region of the city,” Harris said. “That has allowed us to use home visits as a high impact strategy.”

There are three different community hubs located in the city’s northwest end, east end, south end. As part of the program, Harris says family liaisons are knocking on doors or finding every other possible method to reach families every day to figure out what’s keeping kids from making it to school and the resources RPS can provide to help.

Harris says great lengths were made to ensure that the staff reaching out to these families are not only from the communities they are going to but also reflect the demographic of the people who live in the neighborhoods they serve.

“We also want to make sure that we can inform and share information and build trust where they are so we can buffer that trust in the school,” Harris said.

Harris says each interaction with a family or student is digitally tracked, so they can compare that data with absentee numbers to see if it’s actually working.

“When we saw the outreach attempts increase by almost 100 percent, we also saw that the school’s average daily attendance go up,” Harris said. “That’s just one example.”

Harris adds that based on trajectories of student absenteeism from past years show that absenteeism typically improves.

“It’s really important to not just look at current data, but look at historical trends,” Harris said. “What we’ve seen, again, is that data was up 64th day of school, but now we are at day 73, and already we’ve seen attendance start to the level of where we’ve had higher average daily attendance rate.

But, Harris says improving attendance to pre-pandemic levels or better won’t happen overnight.

“Now, it’s about how do you utilize this infrastructure to really make sure that we are directly impacting our attendance,” Harris said.

Read the full presentation here.

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