NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — Newport Public Schools is using a portion of its federal American Rescue Plan Act COVID relief funding to buy passenger vans and hire staff in order to address chronic absenteeism.

The three 15-passenger vans will pick up students who miss the bus, and the three new student attendance coordinators will track who is missing school and reach out to families of students who aren’t showing up.

Newport Superintendent Colleen Jermain told Target 12 nearly a third of K-12 students in the district were chronically absent in 2020. “It is concerning to me,” she said.

Paige Clausius-Parks, a senior policy analyst at the advocacy group R.I. Kids Count, said chronic absenteeism is defined as when a student is absent from school for 10% or more of the school year — the equivalent of at least 18 missed school days.

“A student who’s chronically absent is more likely to fall behind in their school work, they’re more likely to not graduate high school,” she said.

In a plan submitted to the R.I. Department of Education in March, Newport said it planned to devote $150,000 of its $7 million in ARPA funding to buy the vans and an additional $280,000 to hire the three student attendance coordinators for a two-year period.

Jermain said when the ARPA dollars run out, district leaders will analyze whether the student attendance coordinators reduced student absences. If they do, she said, “we will look at our education fund balance as needed to continue employing these positions.”

Kids Count highlighted Newport’s $430,000 initiative in a recent analysis on how Rhode Island public school districts are planning to spend their ARPA money.

And chronic absenteeism isn’t just an issue in Newport. RIDE’s most recent data shows one in four Rhode Island students missed 18 or more school days in 2021.

But despite the widespread problems with student attendance, Kids Count found Newport and Johnston were the only two districts that planned to target ARPA dollars to address the issue.

And Clausius-Parks said the problem has only gotten worse in the wake of the pandemic.

“We have seen rates of chronic absenteeism increase, and particularly with specific communities,” she said. “So for students of color, for multi-lingual learners, low-income students, and students with IEPs were more likely to be chronically absent.”

But there’s still time for districts to address the issue.

Target 12 obtained new ARPA spending data from RIDE showing that out of the $330 million in federal money received, Rhode Island’s K-12 districts had spent roughly $24 million as of June 30 — a little more than 7%.

Seven districts reported spending nothing so far.

RIDE spokesperson Victor Morente told Target 12 districts can change their ARPA spending plans as long as they get RIDE’s approval.

Clausius-Parks said she hopes districts take another look at helping students who are missing school.

“We need students to be reengaged in school,” she said.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook