NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s school system is on pace with the state when it comes to chronic absenteeism, but “we still have some ways to go” in efforts to curb the problem, NPS Director of School Improvement Sandra Faioes said.
“We have been able to reduce it from 10.6 percent last year to 10.3 percent this year, but I want you to keep in mind that our demographic keeps changing, and we do end up having a population that typically suffers from greater absenteeism. So, in us being able to reduce it at all is a major feat for our district,” Faioes said Tuesday to the Board of Education.
Faioes noted that absenteeism increases as students get older, maxing out in their senior year of high school. Outside of high schoolers, kindergartners have the highest absenteeism rate.
Absenteeism went up overall during the distance learning period, primarily because of the rates among older students, she said.
Reducing the chronic absenteeism rate is a goal of the strategic operating plan, and, “We have done fairly well this area over the last several years,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said.
The State’s Next Generation Accountability Assessments target absenteeism and that’s “is critical for us” because NPS can improve the score, Faioes said.
Chronic absence is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school for reasons including excused, unexcused and disciplinary absences, she explained.
“Now, chronic absence versus truancy, it’s important for us to see that these terms are not interchangeable,” Faioes said. “When we measure chronic absenteeism, we’re talking all absences versus truancy. Typically, we refer to students that are truant that have unexcused absences.”
Plus, the chronic absenteeism rate changes over time, as it’s 10 percent of the school days, Faioes continued. Norwalk Public Schools has a ways to go before hitting the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) target of 7.7 percent.
Norwalk’s chronic absentee numbers have gone up from the 2014-15 school year while the state’s have remained in the same ballpark, Faioes said. “However, our demographics have changed significantly and at a much faster rate, than the state.”
- ELL was 11.6 percent in 2014 and is now just over 20 percent
- Special Education population was 11.4 percent in 2014 and now is 14.5 percent
- Free and reduced lunch was 48.9 percent in 2014 and now is about 62 percent
“According to national data, Black students are 40 percent more likely and Hispanic students are 17 percent more likely to lose a total of three weeks of schooling, compared to their white counterparts. And the same seems to be trending here in Norwalk,” Faioes said.
But there’s a surprise: “Even though Hispanic students may experience higher rates of absenteeism, if you are receiving ELL services or you’re classified as ELL, you tend to have better attendance.”
SpEd students are more likely to be absent as well, according to Faioes.
“Most alarming is the overwhelming majority of students that are absent are also dealing with poverty and dealing with these daily stresses,” Faioes said. “Caring for siblings, high rates of disease, frequent moves to find employment, all contribute to this.”
As far as data for individual schools, Columbus, Fox Run and Marvin elementary schools are traditionally lower, Faioes said. Elementary schools generally stayed on track during distance learning but three were outliers, with Brookside, Silvermine and Jefferson showing spikes.
Absenteeism increased sharply at the middle schools during the distance learning period, especially at Ponus Ridge Middle School, she said. Both high schools were up, with Norwalk High School/P-Tech reaching about 25 percent.
“There’s some students that didn’t have devices at certain schools during distance learning that had a really great attendance rate, while others that were in the same predicament had higher levels of absenteeism. So we’re noticing that it’s not it’s not as predictable as we would have thought in our district, because there are schools that are doing remarkably well, even under the same conditions,” Faioes said, in response to a question from Board member Erica DePalma.
“So what does this look like for us as a district? Pre-distance learning our attendance data was 10.5 percent, post distance learning it was 11.5 percent. We had some schools that did better and some schools that did worse. So in the end, the difference was one percentage point,” Faioes said.
NPS might want to come up with a distance learning policy for absenteeism, she said.
“The damage that chronic absenteeism does to a child’s learning is well documented in research that’s been connected to higher dropout rate,” Faoies said. “It’s been connected to learning loss, and the inability to be on grade level at the grade three reading benchmark. So there are many reasons why this continues to be a priority. And we need to leverage the school improvement plans to make sure that we’re creating actionable plans to implement the strategies to improve our attendance.”
Board of Education member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell suggested an emphasis on getting to the root causes of absenteeism. For instance, maybe the school district could find a partner through Norwalk ACTS that would send a van around to pick up kids who miss the bus, at no expense to the City.
“I will keep digging in the data,” Faioes said. “So there’s a lot to uncover, and I will gladly share it with our partners.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux observed that the approach to absenteeism was different during the regular school year and the distance learning period. If her daughter were absent before COVID-19, the family would get a robocall but during distance learning, “teachers were emailing and it was coming from a place of real kindness and concern if my daughter missed something.”
“I am wondering if we could put in our minds an attempt to approach it from sort of like a restorative practice perspective, so that instead of being punitive about absence, that we look for root causes and that we treat it educationally rather than having there be punitive consequences to the child’s for being absent,” LeMieux said.
The longer the students were out of school, the worse the attendance got, Faioes said. “I think, it’s sort of I’m guessing, that goes with what you’re saying, in terms of just people getting more stressed out, families possibly facing having to move or facing other things, I think that impacted our students.”