PROVIDENCE — More than half of Providence high school students were considered chronically absent during the 2018-19 school year, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the days they were supposed to be in class, according to newly released data from the district.
The city has 180 days in a school year, so a student has to miss at least 18 days during the year to be considered “chronically absent.”
The new figures show that the chronic absenteeism rate at Providence’s 12 high schools improved slightly last school year, with 51.4 percent of students missing at least 18 days.
Meanwhile, the percentage of all city students between kindergarten and 12th grade considered chronically absent ticked up to 38.8 percent. A school bus driver strike might have increased the rate for some elementary and middle school students.
The startling numbers come as Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is vowing to crack down on both student and teacher absenteeism when classes begin in September, part of the state’s plan to take over the underperforming school district.
“We will have a tool that measures everyone’s attendance,” Infante-Green told the Globe this week. “And there will be incentive offers” for those who rarely miss class.
Providence has been grappling with poor student attendance across all grades for years, and every program and promotion officials have tried led to only short-term improvements. In 2013, the rapper Kendrick Lamar visited Mount Pleasant High School when students won a national attendance competition. Last year, 51 percent of students there were considered chronically absent.
The city’s chronic absenteeism rate for its 24,000 students is far higher than the national average, which was around 16 percent during the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent data published by the US Department of Education. The national data reflect students who miss at least 15 days of school per year.
By comparison, the chronic absenteeism rate in Fall River was 27.5 percent during the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent figures published by the Massachusetts Department of Education. Boston and Lawrence posted 25 percent chronic absenteeism rates, while New Bedford’s was 23.2 percent.
“The challenge here is absenteeism reflects both conditions in schools and the challenging conditions in communities and they interact,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that tracks absenteeism.
Chang has worked with Providence schools in the past, but she said the district has struggled to find a way to address its challenges throughout the city. Roughly one in three city children live in poverty, and the vast majority of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The city also has a highly transient population, with students changing homes during the school year.
She said the city of Cleveland has become a model for addressing attendance challenges, dropping its chronic absenteeism rate from 44 percent to 28 percent in recent years. The numbers are still high, but she said city leaders have worked closely with outside organizations — including the Cleveland Browns — to urge students to attend class.
“You’re going to have to create a strategy that makes school an engaging, safe, and wonderful environment,” Chang said. “And also address those external barriers.”
Providence had a particularly difficult year for absenteeism last year, in part because a bus driver strike last October left thousands of elementary and middle school students without a ride to school for 11 days.
District officials said 165 students missed every day of school during the dispute. Indeed, chronic absenteeism among students from kindergarten through eighth grade increased last year.
At the high school level, three schools — Central High School, Hope High School, and the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex — all posted chronic absenteeism rates of at least 66 percent. Even Classical High School, a test-in school that ranks among the best in Rhode Island, saw 22 percent of its students miss at least 10 percent of the school year.
The district tracks attendance based on when students enroll in school, so, for example, a student who started midway through the year would be considered chronically absent if they were out nine days.
Nina Pande, the vice president of the Providence School Board, said she’s hoping to get more parents involved as part of the state’s takeover of the district. She said reaching families is one key factor when it comes to addressing absenteeism.
“While we’re trying to do our best, clearly we are not reaching students and families enough,” Pande said. “The district really struggles around parent engagement. We can’t do this work if we don’t have parents engaged.”
Rhode Island is one of the only states in the country that tracks both student and teacher absenteeism in federal accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Attendance is one of the factors considered in each school’s report card, along with test scores, graduation rates, and suspension numbers.
Teacher absenteeism has also been a concern in Providence, although data for the 2018-19 school year have not yet been released. During the previous school year, 11 city schools saw at least 15 percent of teachers considered chronically absent because they missed at least 18 days of school.
Infante-Green, the state’s education commissioner, said she is planning to use a new dashboard that tracks absenteeism for students and teachers. The tool, which was built internally and already has been used in East Providence, can send text message alerts to families to warn them when a student is at risk of becoming chronically absent.