PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When police arrested a DelSesto Middle School student earlier this month for bringing a gun to school, they noted a surprising reason his behavior was unusual that day: the fact that he showed up at all.
The student — who hasn’t been identified — missed 81 days of the previous school year, and school officials told police “when he did attend school, he never brought a backpack or anything with him,” according to an arrest report reviewed by Target 12.
That day, he brought a backpack. And inside, police said they found a 40-caliber ghost gun with an extended magazine containing nearly three dozen 9-millimiter live rounds of ammunition.
“If there are kids who are chronically absent, that’s showing us something is going on and needs to be addressed immediately and we need to get to the root cause of it,” said Paige Clasius-Parks, executive director of the child advocacy group Rhode Island Kids Count.
The DelSesto middle-schooler was one of 46,000 Rhode Island public-school students who were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, meaning they missed at least 10% of school days, according to a recent report by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
That means about one of every three public students in Rhode Island missed at least 18 days of school last year, and represents a record high.
He was also one of 16,000 students — about 13% — who were absent for about two months of the school year, a trend R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said is happening across grade levels and could have lifelong effects.
“Missing 10 to 20 to 30 days in elementary school makes them less likely to graduate high school,” Infante-Green told Target 12. “It could be a second grader — and we’re talking about graduating 12th grade.”
Chronic absenteeism exploded during the pandemic when remote- and hybrid-learning was the norm, as both students and teachers reported difficulties with the virtual model. Parents, meanwhile, grappled with maintaining their own jobs with their children stuck at home.
And the growing trend of chronic absenteeism has been especially acute among the state’s youngest students. In the 2018-2019 school year — prior to the pandemic — about 14% of elementary school students were chronically absent, according to the Annenberg report.
Last school year, the number more than doubled to 31% — bringing the group more in line with the 34% of middle schoolers and 39% of high schoolers who were chronically absent. The trend among younger students is negatively affecting standardized test scores, as third-grade students who were once the shining example of progress in Rhode Island have struggled to bounce back.
“It’s very concerning,” Clasius-Parks said. “If kids are not in school, they’re not able to learn the content and material that they need to learn and move on to advance.”
The reasons behind chronic absenteeism are multilayered. But they include physical and mental health conditions, lack of access to health care and housing, in- and out-of-school violence, and issues with the criminal justice system. In some cases, students are skipping school to work and support their families. Chronic absenteeism is consistently higher among multilingual learners, along with students from poorer families.
And while addressing the issue has been named a top priority of Infante-Green and Gov. Dan McKee, the researchers at Annenberg are skeptical the trend will be reversed any time soon.
“Changes in student attendance do not seem to be a temporary pandemic-induced blip but a new normal,” they wrote.
They may be right.
The R.I. Department of Education recently launched an online “student attendance leaderboard,” showing the percentage of students on track to be chronically absent by school. There are 22 schools already on pace to have at least a third of their students chronically absent this school year. That’s about 5,000 students, just two months into the first semester.
And it’s happening across urban, suburban and rural school districts. Kids Count reports the district with the biggest problem is West Warwick, where nearly 51% of K-3 students were chronically absent last school year.
Charter schools — which are public in Rhode Island — reported 65% of middle and high school students missing at least 10% of school last year, just exceeding the 64% reported in all of Providence.
“Ten days is what we’re using as our marker statewide as a red alert,” Infante-Green said. “You have missed two weeks of school — what is going on?”
Clasius-Parks agrees, saying public school leaders must focus on identifying students who are regularly missing school and intervening and working with families before the 18-day mark — which can result in a referral to the truancy calendar at R.I. Family Court.
“Contacting a family and saying, ‘Hey, do you know how important attendance is, or is there something going on, can we help?’ is much more effective than saying, ‘if your kid doesn’t come into school, we’re going to refer them to truancy court,'” she explained. “That just creates fear and doesn’t help families reach out and see school as a support system.
McKee has said he wants to boost student engagement in part using his Learn365RI initiative, which incentivizes municipalities to create after-school programs outside of the traditional school departments.
The state has earmarked $3.8 million for 30 approved and pending proposals, including $325,000 for South Kingstown, where the town has proposed partnering with Tides Family Services to create wraparound services “for middle school students to address chronic absenteeism.”
In Jamestown, the town is looking to provide attendance incentives for truant students “to participate in Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation programming.”
Yet many of the other district’s plans don’t include specific ideas to address absenteeism. And when asked why the state expects students who are missing regular school to show up for after-school programs, Infante-Green said, “My hope is that they will.”
“It’s a different environment,” she said. “And giving them that other outlet where they can do the karate and then they do their reading and their homework and get the supports that they need — those are the things that we’re hoping to target.”