by Terry Rogers
On Monday, October 19, Dr. Bridget Amory provided Milford School District Board of Education with an explanation of how the district would be tracking attendance during the remote and hybrid learning portions of the school year. The presentation was in response to requests from board members who were concerned with the drop in attendance during remote learning at the end of 2019-2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Children who show evidence of access to online learning and submit assignments in a timely manner as well as those who show evidence of access but do not submit assignments in a manner are marked present. Students who demonstrate no evidence of completion or access are marked absent. A student who shows evidence of completing assignments but no access to online learning is marked as “self-study.” The same policy is used for the remote portion of hybrid learning.
“We do track the daily attendance of students to determine chronic absenteeism, but it may not be the same method used by the State of Delaware,” Dr. Amory said. “The state uses chronic absenteeism that is inclusive of excused absences. They require that even an absence with medical documentation can count toward an absence. Any days missed, even excused, count toward chronic absences. With the data trending, we have seen about 12 to 15 percent in chronic absenteeism which has led us to add some additional resources. We have noticed that some of our Kindergarten and high school numbers appear to be inflated. We also found that our ESL and Hispanic populations have the highest attendance while those who are considered low economic and social status have the worst attendance.”
Dr. Amory explained that in discussion with the Craig Warrington, Visiting Teacher, they found that many children who are of low economic and social status are struggling with just basic needs. Their parents are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, keep food on their table, so school is simply not a priority at the moment. The district works with these families to provide food and other resources, including homeless transportation services, in order to promote education and relieve some of the stress. Dr. Amory also explained that tardies are counted in absentee letters.
“We do request medical documentation when a student is out for an extended time,” Dr. Amory said. “We host regular attendance meetings and each school has an attendance support group designed to address specific needs. Mispillion Elementary has taken this a step farther and has dedicated staff members who become mentors to students with chronic absenteeism. These staff members seek out the children and act as role models for them. This seems to be having a very positive impact on those students. We also have multiple attendance rewards throughout the district designed to get children excited to come to school. Honestly, with COVID, kids are more excited than ever to get back into the classroom and our attendance is trending similarly to what it has in the past.”
Slides were presented showing a comparison of attendance for each school and the district from the 2017-18 school year to the 2020-21 school year. In 2017-18, the district had an overall attendance rate of 94.97. That number dropped to 24.71 the following year and rose to 96.05 the year after. In 2020-21, because of the delay in determining how attendance would be calculated with the remote and hybrid learning systems, the district estimated an attendance rate of 90 percent or higher. High school students are estimated to have the lowest attendance during the current education methods at 85 percent with Lulu Ross and Morris having the highest estimated attendance at 97 percent. This is similar to the data for those schools in previous school years as well.
“Chronic absenteeism should not be confused with truancy,” Board Member Rony Baltazar said. “From my research looking at Delaware, low income and African American students miss the most school. Milford is below state average for absenteeism and that is actually a good thing in this area. But any student missing that much school is a problem. Research shows that a Kindergarten student missing up to one month of school in a year can lead to problems down the road. It can lead to a higher risk of dropping out of school, lower educational scores and more. It just leads to bigger issues as children get older. Research also shows that schools need to follow strategies to avoid chronic absenteeism such as early warning systems, implementing extended learning time and building a positive relationship with students. I am not concerned about the early warning systems or extended learning times as I believe we are doing that, but I am concerned that we are not utilizing community partnerships in the best way possible. I know you mentioned the Food Bank but what about faith-based and non-profit organizations that can help in other ways?”
Dr. Amory stated that the Food Bank was just one organization the district partnered with to help students. She pointed out that numerous churches assisted with the Backpack Program which provided food to needy children on weekends. Each school has developed their own community partnerships that provide them with assistance throughout the school year and over the summer months.
“We continue to look for these avenues to connect with families,” Dr. Amory said. “This is why our counselors and other support staff are so important because it is not usually because a child does not want to come to school that they develop chronic absenteeism. There are also other barriers in the home or at school that must be dealt with.”
Baltazar-Lopez also expressed concerns that out-of-school suspensions may also lead to attendance problems, asking whether the district had developed alternative methods of dealing with discipline that did not include out-of-school suspension. Baltazar-Lopez also expressed concerns about a report issued last year that showed black and brown students only comprised 20 percent of the school population in Milford but received 40 percent of the in-school and 46 percent of the out-of-school suspensions.
“We have been very proactive in not issuing out-of-school suspensions,” Dr. Amory said. “However, when an out-of-school suspension is warranted, we weigh the negative aspects of that when we make the determination. We are using multiple avenues to address absenteeism and disciplinary issues that could increase that.”
Dr. Jason Peel, Director of Human Resources and School Climate, stated that the district had developed a program for ESL and Kindergarten students who the district felt needed the most focus regarding attendance. Dr. Amory explained that, even during COVID, the district launched an Early Education program that identified students during the screening process who may have attendance difficulties.
“We have really increased our staff in addressing attendance issues,” Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, said. “We have student interventionists to address attendance. At Milford Central Academy, we have added a Dean of Students. We added new counselors, social workers and other mental health staff. Each school has an attendance clerk who is part of the team to try to improve attendance. We are taking all possible steps to try to address the issue of attendance.”
Dr. Peel explained that the district has also increased their partnership with People’s Place which allows students to receive mental health assistance in the school building so they don’t have to leave the school to get the services they need. This partnership could also assist with discipline issues that may be mental health related as well.
Dr. Laura Manges, Director of Student Services, explained that there were federal measurements used when districts were rated that included removals of special needs children for disciplinary actions.
“Continued absenteeism particularly for disciplinary removal is known as a “denial of their faith” to the federal government,” Dr. Manges said. “We do not put ourselves in a position that we risk our delivery of faith with discipline. We use alternative methods other than removal from the educational service. Some of our students with emotional disabilities also suffer from anxiety and school phobia, so we try to develop good relationships with them. Some students have actually liked the remote opportunity because it reduces the level of anxiety, but we explain that we want to help those students work through that anxiety because we want them back in the classroom.”
The district attendance policy can be found at https://www.milfordschooldistrict.org/pdf/district/board_policy/5403.pdf.