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Why Buffalo's attendance problem is actually worse than it seems

Remember the report that came out last year that found that nearly half the high school students in Buffalo missed nearly a month of school or more? And that one in three high school students in Buffalo miss more than seven weeks of school?

Well, it turns out that students are missing even more school than the report indicated.


Because students who were suspended were not marked as absent.

That's right.

A student could be suspended for a day, a week, or a full month -- but as far as the district's record-keeping goes, that student would be counted as present for every day he or she was suspended.

Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes says that's how the state has directed schools to keep their attendance records. The way he explained it, a suspended student cannot be considered absent because he or she is not allowed to be in school and so therefore cannot technically be absent from a place he or she is not allowed to be.


Well, State Ed confirmed that.

"The commissioner ruled that for students under the compulsory school age suspended from school, only where the district provides equivalent alternative instruction and the student fails to attend, may a student be marked absent," SED spokesman Jonathan Burman wrote in an email, referencing a 1990 commissioner's ruling.

(Worth noting: a number of other states, including California, figure that when a student is suspended and therefore not in school, that student should actually be marked absent.)

Let's take a minute to think through the implications of this.

We already know that the schools with the worst attendance problems are also generally the schools with the most suspensions. But as bad as those schools' attendance problems seem, they're actually worse, because all those kids who are suspended are counted as being in school.

Keresztes agreed.

Empty desksHe said it would take some data work to figure out just how much of an impact it would make if suspended students were counted as absent. (It's not as simple as it might seem, because you have to know exactly how many days each student was suspended, so that requires dipping into the student-level data.)

For the time being, let's just consider one school as an example.

Average daily attendance at East High School through the end of November 2011 was 80.5 percent. That's a number that counted all the suspended students as having been in school.

How many days did students miss for suspensions during that time?

Well, there were 217 short-term suspensions at East during September, October and November. But most were for more than one day. For example, there were 81 suspensions for five days each -- which account for 405 days of suspensions.

When you do the math, it turns out students missed 782 days for short-term suspensions.

Add to that the 31 long-term suspensions. The district does not report out the length of each long-term suspension, as it does for each short-term suspension, so we don't know how many days those 31 long-term suspensions represent. But we do know each one is for six days or longer. So at the very least, those long-term suspensions account for another 186 days missed.

Between the two, East students missed at least 968 days for suspensions in the first three months of 2011-12.

During that period, there were 56 days of instruction.

That means on an average day, at least 17 students at East were not in school because they were suspended.

There are 527 students enrolled at East. That means on an average day, 3 percent of the students at East were not in class because they were suspended.

So, if suspensions were counted as absences, East's average daily attendance for the first three months of this year would be less than 77.5, rather than 80.5 percent.

Does a few percentage points really make a difference?

You can argue it either way.

- Mary Pasciak

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