DiNapoli to schools: Do more to fight absenteeism

Rick Karlin

Times Union

Sep 20, 2018

ALBANY - With nearly 19 percent of New York's 2.6 million public school pupils missing 10 or more days a year, school districts and the state Education Department need to do more to fight chronic absenteeism, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said Tuesday with the release of an audit that looked at school attendance.

"Given how vital it is for our children to be in school and learning, I urge the department to do even more and re-examine the guidelines provided to local school officials to make it clearer what efforts should be taken to reduce student absenteeism," DiNapoli said in a statement accompanying the report.

Chronic absenteeism, in which a pupil misses 10 or more days of school in an academic year, excused or unexcused, has long been an issue with many schools. Students who are chronically absent are at higher risk of dropping out or falling behind in their classwork.

DiNapoli's audit of the 2016-17 school year explored how schools report absenteeism and it criticized the Education Department for not being more forceful in prompting schools to address the problem. While the department tracks absenteeism, it doesn't, for instance, require districts to take specific actions.

In their response, the education officials said efforts to focus on absenteeism date back at least four years and initially the data gathering was viewed as a tool to help schools deal with the problem. But they expect to be offering more guidance during the 2018-19 year.

Tracking absenteeism is required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that requires measurements of school climate and quality.

One problem came with variability in how schools measured absenteeism. Some high schools, for example, count a student absent if he or she is not at homeroom. Others, though, wait until later in the day to take attendance. There also were discrepancies in the schools' own records and the absenteeism numbers they reported to SED.

DiNapoli's auditors examined 18 school districts including Albany along with Amsterdam, Binghamton, Buffalo, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Greenville, Hadley-Luzerne, Monticello, North Colonie, Peekskill, Plattsburgh, Rochester, Skaneateles, Syracuse, Union Springs, Utica, Victor, and Webutuck.

Extra efforts can include figuring out ways to get kids to school if transportation is a problem and offering encouragement for students to come to school.

Albany and Rochester were found to be making efforts beyond the typical letters and phone calls to a student's home. Absenteeism has been a major focus in Albany, said spokesman Ron Lesko who noted the district has videos emphasizing the need to be in school. The videos are used in discussions with students about attendance and are disseminated on Facebook and Twitter.

"If you miss a day you're missing a whole new thing you could have learned," said a student in one of the videos. "If you miss more days, you're missing even more things you could have learned."

Still, Albany until several years ago had a program with the city Police Department to help combat truancy. Attendance officers and police would go house to house looking for chronically absent youngsters and, if feasible, bring them to school. It wasn't immediately clear why that program ended.