The number of Little Rock School District students chronically absent from school this past year -- missing 18 days or more for reasons both excused and unexcused -- topped 5,000.
That is nearly 1 in every 4 students who missed what amounts to two or more days a month each month of the school year. At the five high schools, the number of chronically absent students topped 2,000, or 1 in every 3 students.
And the numbers and percentages of the chronically absent at individual schools can be even more breathtaking.
At Hall High, there were 553 chronically absent students, which accounted for 53% of the student body.
At J.A. Fair, there were 374 chronically absent students, which was 48% of the students.
And at McClellan High, there were 381 chronically absent, or 50% of the students.
That's all according to data reported by the Little Rock district this summer to the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Another 566 students missed 18 or more days from Central High -- or 22% of the school's student count. Parkview Magnet High reported 163 chronically absent, or 15%.
The district's elementary and middle schools also saw some high rates of chronic absenteeism: 42% of the students at Henderson Middle missed 18 or more days, for example, and 39% did the same at two of the district's elementary schools -- Stephens and Rockefeller -- district data show.
The numbers were reported in a culminating first-year report on the district's Feet to the Seat campaign, a combined effort by the Little Rock district and other organizations -- including the AR Campaign for Grade Level Reading -- to bring attention to, and curb, excessive student absenteeism at 20 selected schools in the district in the 2018-19 school year.
Mike Poore, the district's superintendent, said the effort to combat absenteeism will be bigger and better in the 2019-20 school year, which starts Tuesday.
"We can't say, 'Oops, that didn't work.' We have to keep coming back at it, keep working at it," said Poore.
His plans include forming a districtwide advisory committee that will work throughout the year to address and promote student attendance. That will include the possible use of attendance incentives, he said, to be funded by a recent $40,000 United Way grant to the school system.
"An ongoing advisory board will think about this on a more regular basis instead of looking at it quarterly or having a small group look at it every time we get ready [to report at] a state Education Board meeting, " Poore said. An advisory group of parents as well as district teachers and administrators could formulate next steps rather than just react to data, he said.
Chronic absenteeism not only has implications for the individual students who miss lessons and suffer academically but also for the overall Little Rock district, which is nearing completion of its fifth year of operating under state control because of year-to-year poor achievement at some of its schools.
The Arkansas Department of Education earlier this year set the bar for the district to exit state control -- criteria that calls for improved student achievement at the district's F-graded schools. Those are some of the very schools that have the highest percentages of chronic absenteeism.
The district's F-graded schools are Hall, McClellan, J.A. Fair high schools; Cloverdale Middle School; and Bale, Romine, Stephens and Washington elementaries.
The state's A-to-F letter grade system is based in large part on the annual ACT Aspire achievement test results. But student attendance, by itself, is also a factor in determining the letter grade for a school.
Little Rock's three F-graded high schools have the highest percentages of chronically absent students. Stephens Elementary -- an F school -- is tops in chronic absenteeism among the elementary schools at 39%.
"You have to be there," Danyell Cummings, the district's assessment and evaluation director, said about school attendance and its tie to student learning and high achievement on the state-mandated tests.
Somewhat surprisingly, the issue of chronic absenteeism is a fairly new focus of attention in the state and nation's search for ways to improve student learning.
Attendance Works, a national organization that has sought to bring attention to and curb student absenteeism, reports that 8 million students in the nation are missing so many days of school that they are in academic jeopardy.
"Chronic absence -- missing 10 percent or more of school days due to absence for any reason -- excused, unexcused absences and suspensions, can translate into third-graders unable to master reading, sixth-graders failing subjects and ninth-graders dropping out of high school," the organization states.
A 2012 report from Johns Hopkins University's School of Education similarly warns of the perils of frequent student absences: "Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered."
The Arkansas Campaign for Grade Level Reading has taken on the challenge of the chronic absenteeism in past years in districts across the state, including in the Little Rock district.
Angela Duran, Grade Level Reading Campaign director, said her organization's search for reasons for poor reading skills among children turned up chronic absenteeism as one.
To help, the campaign called in Attendance Works, which provided ways of evaluating student absences as well as offered strategies for improved attendance, Duran said.
"Schools had just looked at average daily attendance or average daily membership, which can mask chronic absences," she said about past practices of schools and districts. "You can have a 95% average daily attendance yet still have a 17% chronic absence rate," she said.
Duran's organization provided training and strategies to the school districts through the state's educational service cooperatives as well as to the Little Rock district.
That included training teams of school leaders -- principals, assistant principals, counselors and others -- on how to calculate their absentee data and put in place strategies to encourage students and their families to see the importance of school attendance.
There was also follow-up coaching.
Over time, staff members in the state's six educational renewal zones have taken on much of the training to schools and districts.
The Little Rock district, with the help of the Heart of Arkansas United Way, AR KIDs Read and the Optimist Club of Greater Little Rock, started this past school year with a news conference about the Feet to the Seat campaign that would focus on 20 of the district's approximately 40 schools.
The attendance results were at best mixed in the 2018-19 school year for all district schools, including the 20 schools that were at the center of the Feet to the Seat campaign, according to the data report prepared by a Little Rock district elementary education director, Ericka McCarroll.
Of the 20 targeted schools, 10 had absentee rates that worsened and four were unchanged as compared with the previous year.
A few schools, however, had absentee rates in the single digits. Three percent of Roberts Elementary pupils were chronically absent as were 5% of pupils at Gibbs Magnet Elementary and Forest Heights STEM Academy. Forest Park Elementary reported a 7% rate.
Fulbright and Jefferson elementaries and Pinnacle View Middle were at 10% and Horace Mann Magnet Middle and Pulaski Heights Elementary reported 11%.
Cloverdale Middle School, one of the F-graded campuses, was one of the schools that showed attendance improvement, moving from 36% chronically absent in 2017-18 to 28% this past school year.
"The schools with F grades are also the schools with high chronic absenteeism rates," acknowledged Duran, whose Campaign for Grade Level Reading provided training to district principals and other leaders on attendance strategies this summer. "There are reasons for that. Those are also schools with high free-and-reduced price rates for school meals. So, there is a lot of poverty.
"If you dig deep into what is happening in families," she said, "you may find that the children are facing all kinds of trauma. Maybe there is a parent in jail or that they are almost homeless and are moving around a lot. All those reasons that make it difficult for a child to focus on school, and also why it makes it harder to learn and that is why they are missing school. Their lives can be so traumatic.
"We are trying to get people to really understand what is happening there. It's not just that people are lazy or this, that or the other. There is some real trauma," she said.
Attendance Works, Campaign for Grade Level Reading and the school district use a three-tiered approach to addressing absenteeism in a school. The first is preventive and for all students at a school. The strategies include creating a positive, welcoming atmosphere and good communication with families about the importance of students being at school. Field trips, projects and after-school activities can aid in getting students to go to school.
For the second approach, if school officials monitor absences, they can home in on those students who are starting to show a pattern of absences or have had a history of chronic absenteeism. School leaders can then intervene with the families by sending letters home, holding a conference with the parent or making a home visit so the parent knows the consequences of student absences. Other early interventions can include providing a family with access to needed services such as student tutoring, or sources for food and clothing.
"You can know by mid-September or October that a student has already missed 10% of days and that they are on track to missing 18 or 20 days for the school year," Duran said. "You don't have to wait. You can know ... and then positively reach out to the family and find out what is going on."
The third level of strategies relates to the students who have high numbers of missed days because of homelessness, lack of adult supervision, out-of-school suspensions and involvement in the juvenile-justice system. Interventions at the level include a school staff member following up with a student and family for each absence, providing data to and coordinating with social service providers to make support available to a student and family, and if necessary, referring the student and family to the court system.
Johnny Key, the state's education secretary who serves in lieu of an elected school board in the Little Rock district, is also aware of the chronic absenteeism issue. He has passed along possible resources on the topic from Harvard University's Center for Education Policy Research.
"I would say the takeaway is that we continue to seek effective strategies and support for boosting attendance in [the Little Rock district] and across the state," Key said last week.
Poore said the district will expand on the Attendance Works and Campaign for Grade Level Reading strategies used this past year.
"When you think about giving a child a year's worth of growth -- it takes a lot of hands to be successful in that," Poore said. "We want to be partners with parents. We know that parents have challenges. That's why we built programs like Bright Futures," which does crowdsourcing to meet a student need.
"That's why we have tried to enhance what we do with food -- whether it is the breakfast in the classroom or the grab-n-go shakes [for high school students], and trying to do even more after-school meals. We understand no family is exactly the same."
The Little Rock district does refer students and their families to the court system for truancy, Poore said, but building relationships between students and their schools is the preferable way of promoting student attendance.
The goal is to create learning environments in which kids say they can't wait to be at school, he said.
"What do we do on our end in terms of ... having a learning environment that is caring," he continued, "is where the teacher is in the hall waiting for students and knows something about them and cares about them. And, once the classroom door gets shut, the kids are in an environment where they can say 'I love this.' 'This is stimulating.' 'I'm learning and I'm not doing a work sheet.' That is what we as educators can address -- making learning a real engagement in a social way as well as in an intellectual way."
A Section on 08/11/2019