CT schools continue to see rise in chronic absenteeism

Schools across Connecticut are seeing issues with chronic absenteeism.

Schools across Connecticut are seeing issues with chronic absenteeism.

Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media

Although state education officials have trumpeted the success of a program targeting chronic absenteeism, the problem is still at critical levels, especially among students without high needs.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic absenteeism has doubled in Connecticut, from 12.2 percent in 2019-20 (until mid-March, when nationwide lockdowns began) to over 25 percent at the beginning of the current academic year, according to state data.

That percentage translates to approximately 125,000 children (out of Connecticut’s 496,000 total students) who aren’t regularly showing up to school.

“Generally, where we are today is how we end up at the end of the year,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the chief performance officer for the state Department of Education, at a Jan. 11 meeting of the State Board of Education. “But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this year, actually, that trend is going to be different.”

Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student missing 10 percent of in-class instruction time, which is 18 days of a 180-day academic calendar. At this point in the 2022-23 school year, a student who has already missed around six days of school is considered chronically absent.

This academic year, chronic absenteeism has declined among most “high needs” students, data show — meaning that students who are English learners, students with disabilities, those who receive free lunches or those who are experiencing homelessness are coming back to the classroom, though nowhere near pre-pandemic percentages.

Gopalakrishnan said that 88,000 students with high needs were chronically absent last year; the number has since declined to 82,500.

However, absenteeism trends among students without high needs are continuing. Only 6 percent of students without high needs were deemed chronically absent in the 2019 school year, but that number has steadily increased to 7.2 percent, 12.4 percent and now 17.6 percent over the last three years.

Data from the first three months of this school year shows a jump from 29,000 to 41,000 chronically absent non-high-needs students.

Education officials say the trend can be attributed in part to a “triple threat health issue,” which includes COVID-19, the flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

“Students may be out for a few days in these initial months, and if you’re out for six days, as of now, you’d be deemed chronically absent,” Gopalakrishnan said. “With COVID now, it’s an up to five-calendar-day quarantine, so with weekends, it’s possible it might really be two or three days a kid misses from school, so we’ll have to see how this plays out in the long run.”

Gopalakrishnan didn’t explain at the board meeting why students without high-needs are the only category that’s rapidly increasing as other groups are seeing a slight decline.

To help combat the student chronic absenteeism crisis, the state launched a program called the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP) in April 2021 for 15 Connecticut school districts, including Bridgeport, CREC, Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Meriden, New Haven, New Britain, New London, Norwich, Stamford, Torrington, Waterbury and Windham.

The program, supported by $10.7 million of the state’s federal COVID-19 funds, asked school districts to identify its chronically absent students. With the help of school personnel or community organizations, at-home visits were staged with the children and their families.

Around 8,690 students received interventions.

“The LEAP approach is very different from what we’ve had in the past with truancy. It focuses on relationships first, before talking about grades, or your child’s behavior, or their attendance, or how they’re not coming to school. We want to create a connection with families of trust and relationships,” said Kari Sullivan Custer, an attendance and engagement consultant for the program.

“The LEAP home visits are targeted and are two-tier supports for students and families who are disengaged from school,” Sullivan Custer continued, adding that the home visits usually last around 45 minutes and initial conversations begin with the families' strengths and capabilities as well as the student’s aspirations.

“A lot of times what we’re learning from home visits is that the family is struggling with many, many different barriers,” Sullivan Custer said. “There may be several children in a home with a single mom, and there’s transporting, ‘I can’t get the kids to school and get to work at the same time,’ and another person helping them work through those issues and come up with regular routines … helps both the family and the student be more secure about going to school every day.”

The program continues with multiple visits over the course of several months and provides different resources based on family needs.

At a recent press conference, the state Department of Education raved about a study that interviewed over 100 of the LEAP participants — and analyzed quantitative data for the over 8,600 students who were a part of the program on a state level — claiming that there was a “significant increase in their rates of attendance overall relative to pre-intervention rates,” according to a recent report from the Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaboration.

“[The Department of Education] is seeing [attendance] as a binary variable, so either you've missed 10 percent of the school year or more, or you haven't,” Steve Stemler, a researcher who contributed to the report, told the CT Mirror.

“In our report, what we’re looking at is the attendance rates, so [a student] went from [going to class] 75 percent [of the time] to 80 percent,” Stemler said, adding that although some students may still be considered chronically absent, they are working toward coming back to school.

“Maybe they were absent, you know, 20 percent of the school year, but … if they got the LEAP intervention, for example, that may push them up to missing only 12 percent,” Stemler said.

The report claims that “attendance rates increased by about four percentage points in the month immediately following the first LEAP visit” and highlighted Hartford Public Schools for attendance rates increasing by “nearly 30 percentage points in the six months or more after treatment.”

The report also said New Haven Public Schools didn’t see any impacts after the school district didn’t “implement the LEAP program as designed,” and rather than one-on-one meetings, “canvassed neighborhoods that were identified as having high concentrations of chronically absent students.”

Though Stemler defended the program’s success toward attendance rates, its direct impact on chronic absenteeism showed mixed results.

Seven of the 14 Alliance districts, excluding CREC, had worsened in chronic absenteeism from the 2021-22 school year through the first three months of this academic calendar.

Hope for the program’s success rests on the fact that in the seven LEAP districts where chronic absenteeism didn’t improve, the increases averaged under 1 percent — except for Norwich and Bridgeport, which increased by more than 8 and 4 percentage points.

Relatively speaking, in 22 school districts that weren’t testing LEAP, 13 also saw jumps in their chronic absenteeism numbers, by an average of 5 percent.

However, the results of the program remain notably inconsistent after the report from the Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaboration said New Haven didn’t improve its attendance problem through its use of the program, yet the school district still improved when looking at chronic absenteeism, as it dropped from 58.1 percent to 45.4 percent.

Likewise, although there’s a statewide decline in chronic absenteeism for English language learners from 32.7 to 29.7 percent this year, the report from LEAP conceded that ELL students had only half of “the treatment effects” from the program compared to students from different demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds — which makes it unclear what parts of the program are successful versus other efforts and initiatives schools are using that are effective.

“I think it's fair to say, you know, there are still open questions … about this [program],” Stemler said, citing COVID spikes and general miscommunication between districts and families between hybrid, remote and in-person learning, as potential factors in mixed results.

“The results look promising, but I agree that there needs to be some follow ups and [the state needs to] continue to look at this to make sure that … it's having the effect that we want it to be having,” Stemler said.