2017-06-22 / Around Town

District to Tackle Absenteeism

By Brooke Constance White

The age-old saying “it takes a village” rings true in Newport Schools, as the administration and community partners continue to work together to increase attendance rates throughout the district. Although Superintendent Colleen Jermain said they are making inroads to increase attendance rates at the elementary and middle school level, the high school continues to be a challenge.

With 2,180 students enrolled in the district, the rate of absentee students in May ranged from about six to nine percent or from 150 to 200 absences throughout the district. On “senior skip day,” when students traditionally cut school together, which was also the Friday before Memorial Day, the absentee rate throughout the district was higher than usual at 304 or 13.9 percent. Although there is an average 92 percent attendance rate at Rogers High School, there are some students who have high numbers of days where they are either absent from school or tardy, Jermain said.

“These are the students that we’re trying to address through different initiatives such as mentoring and extended school day, among others,” she said. “It all comes down to giving them the different supports they need to be successful at school.”

Based on data collected through surveys and focus groups, one of the biggest reasons for the high absenteeism rates in Newport schools has to do with the students’ need to have a caring adult mentoring and encouraging them. Because of this, Jermain said they’ve started a mentor training program and have been partnering with nonprofits to strengthen the leadership programs and mentoring in the district. Aside from providing one-onone guidance, the data shows that having a welcoming environment and offering a more engaging curriculum are all strategies that will likely help improve student attendance. This year, thanks to a grant from the Barr Foundation, a group of high school teachers have been meeting to talk about personalized learning, school culture/climate and what other changes can be made to increase attendance and decrease tardiness.

“It’s a learning process,” Jermain said. “We’re in the discovery phase right now, finding out what kinds of opportunities there are and to figure out what’s working. This grant in particular funds the process of creating a plan geared towards upping the attendance and graduation rate and then designing/ implementing that plan.”

Something else the data showed is that it’s important for the schools to have partnerships with other community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and Newport County Mental Health, among others. Newport Partnership for Families, a local association of agencies and organizations working to strengthen the community, has been joining the district to collect and analyze data in order to address the chronic attendance and truancy issue in the city’s schools for the last three years through a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation and Van Beuren Charitable Foundation. Sharon Carter, director of Newport Partnership for Families, said the funding has supported a student attendance facilitator working at each of the schools, a community research coordinator and an evaluator. She’s in the process of seeking out funding to keep the staff on for another three years so they can begin implementing change and hopefully working towards continually increasing attendance.

Based on the data they’ve collected, Carter said Newport schools can be put into a three-tier model with 80 percent of the students needing universal attention, 15 percent considered at-risk, absent a moderate amount, and need more individualized attention/support. Five percent are high-risk and miss about 20 percent of school.

While not having mentors and caring adults present is a big problem, Carter said they’ve found that student’s reasons for being absent run the gamut and include health issues, lack of transportation, having to take care of a parent or other family member, not being able to walk or bike to school in bad weather, lack of interest, bullying and not feeling welcomed at school. Daily attendance reports are now generated every day so that the school’s administration can track the numbers on a day-to-day basis to look for patterns and to compare it to years past.

“Now that we’ve collected all this data over the last three years, we need to implement it to try and change this. There’s not a one-size fits all solution, but we’re going to expand the mentoring program, make the community resource coordinator more accessible, expand the check-in and connect programs at Pell and Thompson and work to connect with the students at Rogers through partnerships like the Young Voices program,” Carter said. “There’s been a slight increase in attendance and we’re making progress but there’s still more work to be done.”

A new partner in Newport’s effort to combat absenteeism is Young Voices out of Providence, which Jermain said will be starting a leadership program at the high school. Karen Feldman, executive director of Young Voices, said the year-long program will train a diverse group of low-income and urban youth in how to be articulate leaders, successful adults and policy advocates. The training is focused on everything from critical thinking to policy analysis to public speaking to general aspects of professionalism. Not only will the students learn about how to be strong leaders but they’ll be going out to survey their peers, conduct in-depth focus groups and figure out how to improve the school to raise attendance and graduation rates.

“In addition to all of this, the students will be working with the school and district leaders to help improve the high school,” Feldman said. “It’s important to talk to the students because they are the ones who know if these policies are working or not. We want to know if what the district is doing is working for the students. They’ll be asked how the administration can make the product, their education (which is being created for them), more attractive, such that they will increase attendance and succeed at school because that’s what we all want and are working toward. We want the students to succeed.”

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