NHPS youth engagement chief Gemma Joseph Lumpkin: Looking to "stop the bleed," Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

More than four out of every 10 New Haven Public Schools students have missed at least 10% of school days so far this academic year — raising questions about why so many young learners are ​“chronically absent” and putting a spotlight on what exactly the public school district is doing to make sure kids go to class.

That data — and that ensuing discussion and debate — took center stage Monday night during the latest regular bimonthly Board of Education meeting, which was held online via Zoom. 

Board members raised concerns about the effectiveness of the district’s intervention process for truancy, as they also asked why so many families are not sending their students to school. (Click here to view the slideshow presentation in full.) 

Monday’s presentation by NHPS administrators came on the heels of an Oct. 31 meeting that the city school district officials were called to by the state Department of Education to discuss three years’ worth of NHPS attendance data.

First marking period student absenteeism numbers. New Haven schools data.

According to the city public school system’s definitions, a student is ​“chronically absent” if they miss at least 10% of school days — which translates to more than two school days a month. For the first 45-day marking period, more than 42% of students so far have missed at least 10% of school days since late August.

According to the state’s EdSight data system, NHPS’s end-of-year chronic absenteeism rate has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That chronic absenteeism number was at 19.9% for the 2017-2018 school year, 19.3% in 2018-2019, 21.2% for 2019-2020, 34.4% for 2020-2021, and 58.1% for 2021-2022.

NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracey said on Monday that, after looking at the district’s attendance data, state officials expressed ​“grave concerns for New Haven.”

NHPS Director of Research, Assessment and Evaluation Michele Sherban took the lead Monday night on presenting this school year’s attendance and absenteeism data to date. 

She presented on attendance rates for K‑12 city public school students for the first marking period of the school year, which ran from Aug. 28 to Nov. 7 and covered 45 days of school.

“For every individual student, there’s a story to why they’re absent,” Sherban told the board members.

She also said that 5.6% of NHPS students have already missed at least 18 days of school. That means that they have already passed the threshold of chronically absent for the entire school year, which began at the end of August and ends in June. 

“Chronic absenteeism is an urgent and serious matter because absenteeism affects student learning,” NHPS spokesperson Justin Harmon told the Independent in an email comment sent after Monday’s board meeting. ​“We are working hard to boost student achievement in such critical areas as reading and math, and as Dr. Tracey said, You can’t teach an empty seat.”

Why does the district think that so many students are missing so much school this year so far? 

“We think there are many reasons for absenteeism,” Harmon replied by email. ​“There was an uptick in COVID and other respiratory illnesses at the start of the year. Some older students have jobs or family care responsibilities that can cause them to miss time in school. Some are struggling to maintain a sense of engagement in school. There are as many different circumstances as there are students. That’s why we are trying to understand individual students’ stories to help reduce their particular obstacles to attendance. It only takes two days a month to reach the threshold of 10% absent, which defines chronic absenteeism.”

And what is the district doing to make sure students actually come to class?

“As we understand and respond to student needs, we are working aggressively to increase mentorship, outreach and home visiting to families, and attendance education,” Harmon wrote, ​“to expand community partnerships, and to engage our students within our schools. We will be continuously tracking our progress with ongoing data analysis and feedback from our schools, students, families, and community partners throughout the year.”

NHPS Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement Gemma Joseph Lumpkin joined Sherban to present to the board members on Monday about how the district has been tackling the issue of chronic absenteeism. She also spoke about how the district is prioritizing which students to provide intervention resources to and when. 

The majority of district resources are currently targeted to those students who have not yet reached the 18 days of absence so far this school year.

Joseph Lumpkin said that her team gets an alert when students have missed two to five days of school. That’s currently the case for 38.9% of NHPS students, or 6,998 students in total. Once a student hits that two-to-five-day threshold, teachers are required to monitor that student’s attendance more closely and reach out to the student’s family to make them aware of the moderate-level concern. 

For students who have missed six to 10 days of school so far, the district recommends school administrators seek out school-based mentors and create a success plan with the students. This is done in collaboration with the families, Joseph Lumpkin added. She said that many of these students fly under the radar because they are missing a day here or there. ​“This is a group that we really want to make sure that we stop the bleed,” she said on Monday.

Joseph Lumpkin said that the students who have missed 11 to 14 days of school are provided with intensive wraparound services to ​“unwrap the issues” that are likely occurring at home and affecting their school life. Those issues range from part-time jobs to family health concerns. Joseph Lumpkin’s team is implementing intensive home visits to these families with the help of the district’s YouthStat staffers. 

Students who have or will soon approach 15 to 18 days missed this school year are being provided with ​“larger community supports” to receive ​“intensive interventions” with resources from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), Joseph Lumpkin said. 

Joseph Lumpkin also said on Monday that her team recently met with consultants from Attendance Works to improve the district’s chronic absenteeism plans and initiatives. 

“Our goal is to hold that group that is between two to 10 days and to provide deep and intensive support to students who go past the 10 days,” Joseph Lumpkin said. She also said that state Department of Education is currently helping New Haven resolve technical issues around the public school district’s data management system for tracking absenteeism.

The attendance data for this year shows that 42.2% of NHPS students are considered chronically absent so far, 45 days into the current school year. That compares to a chronic absenteeism rate of 44.9% at this time last year. 

District officials reminded the board while sharing the data that they believe elementary school students’ absences are likely a result of the students’ parents or guardians not sending them to school, while high school student absences are more likely to be a result of high school students not getting themselves to school. 

So far, 13% of NHPS 9th graders — or 225 of 1,732 students — have already missed at least 18 days of school, meaning that they are already considered chronically absent for the whole school year. 

Meanwhile, 11% of high school seniors — or 140 of 1,272 — have already missed at least 18 days of school. 

Board member Darnell Goldson agreed with district officials that elementary student absences are more on parents, high school student absences are likely more on the students themselves. 

“That seems to be a major problem that we need to be addressing,” Goldson said of parents with chronically absent elementary school students. ​“We need to call it for what it is, some parents are falling down on the job there.” 

Fellow Board of Education member Orlando Yarborough suggested that the district begin to collect data on why students and teachers are absent to determine reasons for absentee rates. 

“How much of the absenteeism is related to students or families opting not to come to school for non-medical, non-health and non-wellness reasons?” And how much of absenteeism is due to illness, and how much to COVID-19?

Joseph Lumpkin said many elementary school student absences are sick days as reported from parents. ​“Our intervention for that is to make sure that an outreach is made from the nurse to get an understanding of what that illness is and to be sure this child is receiving care,” she said. 

Supt. Tracey clarified that students’ excused absences are still considered absences by the state. 

“You have the flu once, you have Covid twice, and you’ve already met the 10% for a certain quarter or a year, so it doesn’t seem to be difficult to actually reach the threshold to be chronic,” Yarborough said. 

Mayor Justin Elicker agreed with Yarborough’s point about the chronic absentee threshold. ​“I think probably my own daughter’s chronically absent” so far this school year, he said. ​“It’s also important for us to know why people are absent.” 

He said his daughter has been out for a number of days due to sickness. He said looking at why students are absent will help the district to focus its resources more. 

Board member Abie Benitez described the data as ​“disheartening” and requested that the district look into the effectiveness of its intervention supports in the near future. 

​“I believe with the number that we have, we should really look into interventions and the impact they are having,” she said. 

The board is also considering putting chronic absenteeism as a discussion item on its agenda for its next few meetings to continue tackling the issue.

9% Of High School Teachers Absent Each Day

Also on Monday, Sherban presented data to the about teacher attendance so far this school year. She compared that data to teacher attendance numbers dating back to July 1, 2019. The data was collected through the district’s use of the Automated Substitute Placement and Absence Management system. 

So far this school year, an average of 9% of high school teachers and 7.2% of elementary school teachers have been absent each school day. 

“We’re gonna see spikes in teacher illnesses and we saw that throughout last year and we see this again this fall with flu season and other respiratory viruses,” Sherban said. 

City teachers union President Leslie Blatteau questioned during the meeting why the district was presenting its teacher attendance data. 

“We’re still in a teacher retention crisis,” Blatteau said. ​“And we are still in a time of unprecedented illness, stress, and trauma and I question the timing of an approach to this teacher attendance data presentation. This union agrees we want our educators to come to work. But we also must ask: Do we want teachers to burn out? Do we want teachers to come to work ill? Do we want teachers to feel like they’re choosing their own families over their work place? Or do we want to collectively roll up our sleeves and figure out what our teachers need and how we can support them.” 

Board member Darnell Goldson asked why 19% of high school teachers were absent on Sept. 13. Co-Op High School Assistant Principal John Nguyen explained that that was a professional development day and not an average school day with students.

Goldson also requested data on administrative absences to be presented at a future board meeting.

This story was originally published Nov. 16, 2022, by the New Haven Independent.