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Reopening Schools Helped Improve Student Attendance, But It's Still Lower Than Usual

Phoebe Jones
ARISE Academy students Ma Lani Johnson and Michael Wilson stand outside their fifth-grade classroom. March 26, 2021.

Attendance among New Orleans public school students has significantly improved since the beginning of the school year, but it’s still not where it used to be.

District-wide data obtained by New Orleans Public Radio show an average daily attendance rate of 86 percent in early March — nearly 6 percentage points lower than it would be in a typical school year.

The district’s average attendance rate was 91.8 percent for the 2018-2019 school year, slightly beneath the state average of 93.7 percent. Roughly 80 percent of students attended school daily when classes resumed virtually in August.

Attendance rates have improved gradually since students first began returning to the classroom in late September. They dropped again in January when most students pivoted back to online learning due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. When schools reopened in February, the attendance rate again started to inch its way back up.

School attendance was a problem even before the pandemic. For the 2016-17 school year 21 percent of the district’s students were habitually absent. The following year that number was just shy of 25 percent.

So far this year, it’s closer to 35 percent. Nearly 16,000 students were documented as having missed at least two weeks of school by early March.

Shannon Perry with the district’s Office of Student Support and Attendance said she’s seen attendance improve as more students return to the classroom. But the transition back hasn’t been easy.

“There's not a simple way to do this,” Perry said. “I think that districts all over this country are struggling and trying to understand what works because we still don't know what the future holds for all of us as we go into next school year.”

While the district’s buildings are currently open to all students at least part-time, a significant number of families have opted to stick with virtual learning.

At the end of last month, between 20 and 30 percent of elementary and middle school students were still learning at home, according to district spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo. At the high school level, the percentage was between 40 and 50 percent.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told New Orleans Public Radio last month that the goal is to have all students back in-person full-time at the start of next year. As of now, the district has expressed no interest in continuing to offer families a virtual option.

The city recently launched a public awareness campaign with the district focused on creating a culture of community accountability. Some school counselors said they’ve seen a positive impact since.

This year schools have been required to share attendance data with the district biweekly, though Alfonzo said the policy will be suspended at the end of this month now that average attendance rates are higher.

While the city’s higher-ranked schools have posted high attendance rates throughout the school year, improvements by lower-ranked schools have helped bring the district’s average up.

During virtual learning, Ma Lani Johnson, a fifth-grader at ARISE Academy, said she typically signed on to classes from bed. Sometimes she missed class entirely and was marked absent.

“I think the biggest difference [about virtual learning] is some people tend to fall asleep. I actually did that,” Johnson said.

She didn’t want to go back to school in person, but she said her mother made her. Back in the classroom her teacher, Hakim Rashad, changed her perspective.

“Mr. Rashad actually persuaded me to learn more and gave me the courage to speak out about learning things and talk more about our lessons,” she said.

In early March, Rashad’s fifth-grade class received a special award from the district’s school board for one week of perfect attendance. They celebrated with a lunch delivery from Chick-fil-A.

Attendance incentives like these are new at ARISE Academy, a K-8 school in the 9th Ward that serves roughly 400 students. Rhia Biagas, the school social worker, said the new program, which awards students weekly and monthly, has been key to making sure students attend school regularly.

Phoebe Jones
School social worker Rhia Biagas stands on the front lawn of ARISE Academy during a food distribution event. March 26, 2021.

“I think this year has just been about having the right strategy to improve our attendance because the numbers at the beginning were so low,” she said.

The school’s weekly attendance rate was about 60 percent for the first half of the school year, Biagas said. By mid-March, that number was closer to 90 percent. More than 80 percent of ARISE Academy’s students opted to learn in-person this quarter.

The school also offers parents rewards by raffling off gift cards. There’s a weekly raffle for parents whose children have perfect attendance as well as those whose attendance is most improved.

Phoebe Jones
A poster at ARISE Academy reminds students about the school's many attendance incentives. March 26, 2021.

“We all hope things will go back to normal eventually, but I think that the way we prioritize and celebrate attendance here is something we’ll probably continue to do,” Biagas said.

Biagas said many kids have dealt with grief and depression this year and the incentives, while small, have given them something to look forward to each week.

Rashad, the fifth-grade math teacher, has long been a fan of incentives. His pockets are typically full of raffle tickets and fake money, colorful bills that can be redeemed for snacks and other small prizes.

Phoebe Jones
A student at ARISE Academy shows off her "Phoenix Bucks," fake money that can be spent on real prizes. March 26, 2021.

“The lesson learned [this year] is have as much fun as possible while you learn. That's what gets kids to come,” he said.

Before the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for a student to put their head down in class and “shutdown” due to frustration or stress, Rashad said. Since returning to the classroom this year, he said that hasn’t happened at all.

“They're coming in with a lot of joy and I'm letting them have fun,” Rashad said. “I'm letting them laugh because I know that's a part of their therapy.”

District Truancy Office Remains In High Demand

Perry, with the district, said relationships like those fostered at ARISE Academy are key to making sure students attend school regularly. However, they’re difficult to maintain remotely.

She said students who attend school in-person are more likely to have better attendance than those learning virtually.

Even though the district’s overall attendance rates have improved, Perry said the demand on her office has remained consistent. Her team is focused on responding to the most challenging attendance cases.

Individual schools can only refer cases to Perry’s office after they’ve exhausted all other options. That means calling families repeatedly, sending emails, letters, text messages, and attempting at least one home visit.

By the time Perry’s team intervenes, she said students have typically missed 15 to 20 days of school. Sometimes cases are far more severe, with students logging more than 60 absences.

The demand on Perry’s office is in part due to the suspension of regular truancy enforcement. When the school year started in August, the NOPD said it would not conduct truancy sweeps.

At the time, all students were learning remotely, making it difficult for officers to know whether a child was actually skipping school.

By suspending truancy sweeps, Perry said, the legal mechanisms schools rely on to enforce attendance laws were also impacted. They couldn’t issue families with habitually absent students municipal court summons requests.

By the end of November, more than 9,500 students were classified as habitually absent.

In December, Perry said her team met with NOPD to come up with a solution. They allowed the district to move forward with summons requests. They’ve used them sparingly since then.

Perry said the district only involves the court system in “egregious” cases. Her team has conducted more than 1,200 home visits but has only issued 16 summons requests this school year.

“Many of the families that we see are engaged with [legal] systems and are already struggling. We don't want to make things more complicated if there's a way for us to avoid doing that,” she said.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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