Education commissioner names ‘attendance priority schools’ to address ‘staggering’ chronic absenteeism

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Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley announced Tuesday he will not name the typical “chronically underperforming schools” this year, shifting focus instead to “attendance priority schools” to address a persistent, chronic absenteeism crisis.

“While (underperforming) designations have served us well in the past, in reviewing the data this year, it’s clear that we need a different approach, one based on collaboration and working together as opposed to merely labeling schools,” Riley said at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting Tuesday morning. “One that is focused laser focus on school attendance.”

Though the attendance has begun to recover from the pandemic peak — from 28% absenteeism statewide to 22% this year — the schools across the state are still at “unprecedented” levels of absenteeism. From 2019 to 2023, according to DESE data, chronic absenteeism has grown 72%.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10% of days in a school year for any reason. It is connected to risks of lower literacy, academic achievement and graduation — several pediatricians also testified Tuesday to the pressing health risks of the issue.

Roughly over 1,300 schools, or three-quarters of Massachusetts schools, will fall into the new “attendance priority schools” designation, Riley said.

The former “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming schools” designations directed millions in state funds to schools in need of additional resources. The lack of that support and implementation of a new funding mechanism was a point of concern for board members.

Riley noted the $4 million in funding will go to help the districts better track chronic absenteeism, working with parents to address the issue, “acceleration” or “recovery academies” that have typically helped students catch up over vacation times, and other resources.

“When you go to say, I’m going to use this money for these different things — what voices from the community will you incorporate?” asked Board Chair Katherine Craven, questioning the specifics of the plan. … “How does this information become actionable? And actionable on the department’s part, because implementation is the key for everything in life, right?”

The commissioner called the prioritization “the most important thing we can do as an educational community if we want to improve outcomes for children” and noted the need to innovate solutions. Members said the issue will be discussed further at upcoming meetings.

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Riley said despite the persistent issue, Massachusetts has had the fastest rate of attendance recovery among 11 states with 2022-23 chronic absenteeism data.

Absenteeism rates varied among districts in the 2022-23 year, from a few charter school districts with outlier attendance rates as low as 42.5% to rates as high 98.4%. In the latest school year, Boston had an 88.7% attendance rate, the 18th lowest in the state and fourth lowest among non-charter, in-person public school districts.

“Remember, this level of absenteeism is something we’ve never seen before,” Riley said. “We’ve always had chronic absenteeism, but the numbers are staggering across the country.”

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