PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With the new school year just underway in Providence, acting superintendent Dr. Javier Montañez says new strategies are being employed to get students into the classroom more often.
The district has created 21 new positions known as community specialists, who are specifically tackling student attendance, and has also added guidance counselor positions at each elementary school.
“My top priority is to combat chronic absenteeism and re-engage families and students,” Montañez told the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday night.
“It has been a challenge for PPSD for decades,” he added. “COVID did not create this problem. COVID made the existing problem worse.”
Target 12 reported last spring that 60% of Providence students had been chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year as of April 28, compared to 37% of students the year before. Chronic absenteeism refers to students who miss 10% of the school days or more.
Students missed school for a variety of reasons, Montañez said, ranging from the need to take care of younger siblings or sick relatives to mental health or substance abuse issues. Some students feel disengaged or need to work to support their families.
The community specialists made 4,000 phone calls and 400 home visits over the summer, Montañez said.
During the first two days of school in Providence (Thursday and Friday of last week), the attendance rate was an average of 80% among high schools and 82% in elementary and middle schools.
The numbers are slightly higher than the first two days of school last year, but much lower than the attendance rates for the same two days in the years before the pandemic.
The goal is to be in the high 90 percent range, Montañez said. Providence does not have a remote learning or hybrid option this year, in an effort to get all students back in school full time.
The new community specialists will serve on each school’s attendance team, lead community outreach, serve as a liaison to families, host town halls and other events, facilitate conversations and have duties at lunch, in the hallways and arrival and dismissal, according to a description presented to the K-12 council.
Montañez said the district is now calling families after two days of a student being absent, rather than a week, which was the prior standard.
A spokesperson did not immediately know how many of the 21 new community specialist positions had been filled, but the district’s online job board indicates three community specialist jobs are still available, at Nathan Bishop Middle School, Roger Williams Middle School and Gilbert Stuart Middle School.
The goal is to focus less on the punishment for missing excessive amounts of school, Montañez said, and more on restorative practices. (The district previously had seven truancy officers who were laid off during the pandemic, but at least one truancy officer returned.)
State Rep. David Morales, D-Providence, praised the effort in a post on Twitter.
“While it may seem minor to some, phone calls from Community Specialists go a very long way to demonstrate to our families and students that their district cares about them (especially for immigrant households),” Morales said.
In addition to the community specialists, Montañez said the 18 elementary school guidance counselors would focus on social-emotional wellness and supporting students and staff. In addition to increasing attendance rates, the counselors are aiming to reduce suspension rates.
Home visits are scheduled for this week for families that have been unreachable, according to the presentation given to the K-12 Council.