PROVIDENCE — Half of the students attending Providence Public Schools were chronically absent this past school year, an improvement from the height of the pandemic but still worse than before the state took control of the struggling system.
The new attendance data come as the urban district, the largest in Rhode Island, seeks to claw its way back from record-low attendance during the pandemic, when nearly 60 percent of students were chronically absent.
State leaders targeted chronic absenteeism for improvement when they took control of the district in 2019, when 38 percent of students were chronically absent.
According to the new data released by the district this week, 50 percent of students were in school 90 percent of the time in the 2022-2023 school year. That means 50 percent missed at least 10 percent of the year, meeting the criteria for chronic absenteeism.
Put another way: In the district of about 22,000 students, more than 10,000 each missed 18 days or more during the most recent school year.
Still, Superintendent Javier Montañez celebrated the new data while presenting it to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday night.
“Half of our students went to school 90 percent of the time, and that is huge,” Montañez said.
The latest attendance number is far from the district’s ultimate goal of having 90 percent of Providence students in school 90 percent of the school year. (In other words, only 10 percent of students would be chronically absent.) That ambitious target was originally set for the school year starting in 2024, according to the Turnaround Action Plan released in June 2020.
But in 2022, the R.I. Department of Education pushed its goals back to 2027, citing the devastating toll of the pandemic on student learning and attendance.
Moving the goal posts came with new annual targets far below the original plan. Now, the goal for the 2024-2025 school year is for 70 percent of students to show up to school 90 percent of the time, well below the original target.
This year’s 50 percent attendance number, therefore, met the newly set goal of 50 percent of students attending 90 percent of the school days this past year, according to RIDE spokesperson Victor Morente.
Ty’Relle Stephens, an outspoken member of the Providence School Board, argued it was disingenuous to say the turnaround goals are being met.
“It’s seems as if we keep changing the goals to make it seem like we’re making progress,” Stephens told the Globe. “For us to celebrate that, it shows low standards of the district and of the takeover.”
He noted that the state takeover has not officially been renewed beyond its current end date in 2024. Providence Mayor Brett Smiley told the Globe this week that he does not expect control of the schools to return to Providence next year.
“There are thousands of students that are not showing up to school,” Stephens said. “That right there, I cannot celebrate. And I will not celebrate until we get that number up.”
School Board President Erlin Rogel did not respond to a question about whether the new absenteeism data should be celebrated, but said in a statement that educators and district officials have “doubled down on family engagement as a way to combat chronic absenteeism.”
“We still have a lot of work to do to undo the disengagement caused by the pandemic, but I am confident that a concerted effort by all stakeholders will yield improvement in upcoming years,” Rogel said.
Montañez acknowledged that “poor attendance is a challenge” for the district. He said a new attendance team would be working on strategies to get students back in school full time.
The strategies being put in place include hiring a new director of student attendance and continuing to do home visits and make other direct connections with families to get children and teens back in class.
District officials said the three-pronged approach to improving attendance includes developing positive student-teacher relationships, a sense of belonging, and a better culture and climate.
Chronically absent students are not necessarily truant; their absences may be considered “excused” due to illness or a hardship such as homelessness. But regardless of the reason, district officials say chronic absenteeism has a profound effect on student outcomes, future success in the labor market, and even health.
Students are considered “truant” once they have 10 unexcused absences, according to the new attendance policy the Providence School Board voted on on Wednesday night. (The board lacks power under the takeover to actually approve or reject policies, but the district still presents them.) It says students who consistently cut class may get privileges taken away, such as participation in sports, theater and music rehearsals, school dances, and more.
Students won’t be suspended as a result of their truancy, according to the new policy.