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Contagion of absence infects system; Data 'dismal' as study of absenteeism shows pattern creating city 'graduation rate crisis'

More than half the students in Buffalo public high schools were absent 18 or more days last year.

And that includes the one-third of the city's high school students who missed more than seven full weeks of school, according to an attendance study commissioned by the Buffalo Public Schools. The district's dismal graduation rate can be linked to the poor attendance, educators say.

"One of the key elements in solving the graduation rate crisis in the City of Buffalo is to address the attendance problem, especially at the high school level," said Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes, the district official who is leading efforts to improve student attendance.

Buffalo's four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2010 was 47 percent, down from 53 percent for the previous year, the state Education Department recently reported.

At the ninth-grade level, 36 percent of students missed more than seven weeks of school in 2009-10. And an additional 21 percent missed 18 to 35 days. Eighteen days is equivalent to 10 percent of the school year, which is about 180 days long.

"I would characterize those results as the most dismal results of the study, and the most compelling," Keresztes said. "Those students are almost guaranteed to not be able to attain five credits at the end of their freshman year and, because of that, will not be able to graduate."

While Keresztes was most struck by the high school absenteeism, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said that at least equal attention should to be given to addressing absenteeism in elementary schools.

"Once students have high absenteeism in elementary grades, they start to fall behind in their subjects, especially English and math, and they get further and further behind," Rumore said. "Which accounts for why they start to become chronic absentee problems in high school."

Most of the study's data is drawn from 2009-10, a year when school officials urged parents to be extra cautious when deciding whether to send sick children to school, because of concern about swine flu, noted Samuel L. Radford III, a parent leader in the district.

Radford also criticized the study as tinkering around the edges of the problem. The main issue, he said, is that the district pulls the strongest students into schools such as City Honors and Hutch-Tech, and then puts struggling students all together in other schools, such as Burgard and Riverside.

"You cannot take all the people who are having the hardest time and put them together. You have to spread them out among students who are doing well and lift them up," he said. "They don't come to school because the school has given up on them. We need to put a system in place that gives every child a high-quality education."

Last fall, the district commissioned California-based student attendance expert Hedy N. Chang to study attendance in the Buffalo schools. That study grew out of a continuing partnership the district has with Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services that deals with student attendance, as well as reinforcing positive student behavior, Keresztes said.

Chang's initial findings come in two pieces: more global data, broken down by grade level and other groupings, based on 2009-10 data; and school-by-school data, based on 2010-11.

Eventually, school-by-school data will become available for 2009-10, Keresztes said.

The overall attendance for the district, in kindergarten through 12th grade, shows that 42 percent of students missed 18 or more days of school in 2010-11, Chang's analysis found.

Of those, 16 percent missed more than seven weeks of school.

Attendance varied significantly from school to school, Chang found.

Among elementary schools, Highgate Heights had the severest attendance problem. There, 62 percent of students missed 18 days or more. That includes 44 percent of students who missed more than seven full weeks of school.

Elementary school attendance was best at Olmsted, where 10 percent of students missed 18 days or more.

There was a range among high schools, as well.

At Riverside Institute of Technology and East High School, 79 percent of students missed at least 18 days of school. At City Honors, 9 percent missed that much school.

And at Riverside and at Bennett High School, 51 percent of students missed more than seven full weeks of school. At City Honors, only 1 percent did.

Chang's analysis of 2009-10 data found that attendance is moderately better at the lower grade levels.

Students missing 18 or more days -- nearly four full weeks of school -- ranged from 34 percent in second grade to 43 percent in kindergarten, seventh and eighth grades in 2009-10.

Chang also found that:

*There were significant differences among racial groups. At the high school level in 2009-10, 33 percent of Asian students missed 18 or more days of school, compared with 51 percent of whites, 64 percent of African-Americans and 68 percent of Hispanics.

*Special-education students had severer attendance problems. Among high school students, 69 percent missed 18 or more days of school, compared with 58 percent of general education students.

*Immigrant students whose native language is not English had slightly better attendance. In high school, 55 percent of them missed 18 days or more, compared with 61 percent of those whose native language is English.

District officials have put together several initiatives to address the overall attendance problem.

"Poor student attendance may be considered a communitywide issue, but it requires a remedy by the school district," Keresztes said. "We must provide the leadership."

Among the initiatives:

*Attendance teachers will be assigned to all 13 persistently lowest-achieving schools starting in August. There will be one assigned to each of the high schools in this group, and nearly one to every elementary school, Keresztes said. He expects a total of 12 attendance teachers to be on staff in the fall.

"We're designing these positions to be very supportive of families, to be very intervention-focused," he said. Attendance teachers may visit homes of students, work with families and, if necessary, even pursue court action.

*Recorded wake-up calls to students with chronic attendance problems, to start with summer school students in July.

*Consideration of a city truancy ordinance.

*A one-day attendance summit in the fall, featuring Chang, to roll out a call to action that will involve various stakeholders in the community.


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