1 in 4 chronically absent: Stamford schools data during COVID shows reading, math scores also dipped

Student dismissal at Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn., on Thursday October 14, 2021.

Student dismissal at Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn., on Thursday October 14, 2021.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — The amount of missed school days among Stamford students continues to grow through the COVID-19 pandemic, as a quarter of students were listed as “chronically absent,” according to data from January.

The numbers, which were released by the school district during a Board of Education “retreat” meeting last month, show that students are missing classes at an alarming rate.

Among schools, the highest rate of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent or more of classes — occurred at Cloonan Middle School and Westhill High School, where a third of all students missed a 10th or more of their classes.

The district’s Anchor program, which moved to a new location on North Street this school year, has also struggled to get children to class. By January, 75 percent of the small student body there had been chronically absent, data show. The program caters to struggling middle and high school students, many of whom suffer from mental health issues.

During the retreat, Associate Superintendent for School Development Olympia Della Flora mentioned a number of reasons why Stamford’s absentee rates continue to climb. Last year, the rate was roughly 20 percent. During the 2019-20 school year, before COVID-19 hit, the rate was 12.5 percent.

One of the troubling trends in absenteeism, Della Flora said, is that students deemed to be not “high need” are showing up among the figures of those most often missing school.

“We’re still in a pandemic and we hope that we are really starting to move out of that, but the biggest challenges this year for attendance are not technology, are not school closures, they’re not teacher quarantine,” she said. “Really, what we have started to see are things around student engagement, behavior and mental health.”

That’s reflected in statewide data as well. Stamford’s rate of chronic absenteeism is the same as the state average of 25 percent, said Eric Scoville, spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Education.

“The pre-COVID era gives a useful baseline for attendance in a fully in-person model,” Scoville said, in an emailed statement.

Other reasons include students having to quarantine at home as well as more families taking trips to their home countries once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, Della Flora said.

Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety have led to some of the high numbers, she said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever received as many phone calls as we have this year with parents actually calling to just say, ‘We need help. We can’t get our kid to go to school and it really is a struggle,’” Della Flora said.

Stamford is hardly unique, however, as many districts across the country have struggled with keeping students engaged during the pandemic, the data show.

National data show that among racial and ethnic groups, Black students are absent at the highest rate, at 32 percent, followed by Hispanic students, at 29 percent.

Roughly a third of English Learners — students who have limited understanding of the English language — and special education students were chronically absent, according to the national figures.

Board president Jackie Heftman noticed the high rate of absenteeism among Stamford’s high school seniors, which led all grade levels at a rate of 36 percent of students chronically absent.

“As a data point, it would be interesting to know how many of those students have fallen so far behind that they know that there is no chance of catching up,” she said.

Officials have recently touted a new planned block schedule in the fall as a first step toward addressing some of the challenges faced by students. The schedule would allow for students to take fewer classes at any one time, lightening their total course load, the district said.

Administrators said they believe that will give students a more manageable schedule and help students from getting too far behind.

Teachers, however, have been strongly opposed to the district’s plan, for a variety of reasons.

Also expected to be rolled out across secondary schools is a “grading for equity” pilot program, which would give students more of a chance to catch up if they struggle.

In a nutshell, the grading for equity system uses a scale of 50-100, with each grade representing 10 points, as opposed to the traditional model, in which an F grade is assigned to any score under a 60.

During the retreat, members were also given data related to reading and math progress of students.

Reading data for students in grades K-5 showed a 4 percent improvement among students who were at or above benchmark levels compared with the beginning of the year. That was the same improvement shown for students in grades six, seven and eight.

However, the percentage of students who scored below or well-below the benchmark was 50 percent among the younger grades, and 52 percent at the middle school level.

Math scores also showed improvement from the beginning of the year, but 68 percent of students from grades 1-8 scored below proficient.

Those numbers are expected to change by the end of the year, said Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Amy Beldotti, since the benchmarks are based on end-of-year proficiency levels.

Bedotti said many of the students who were placed in the category of “basic” are likely to reach proficient by the end of the year. Those students are “well within range to meet expectations,” she said.

Nonetheless, Beldotti showed concern about the numbers.

“Our reading scores are not where we would like them to be,” she said.

Like with the absentee data, Stamford is not an outlier. Beldotti said Stamford’s figures are in line with national reading scores.

School board member Becky Hamman called the scores “unacceptable.”

“These are not good scores, but I don’t want us to point to the schools all the time because these are community issues that need to be taken into account,” she said. “These are scary.”

Beldotti said some of the numbers were not dissimilar to those the district saw in 2019, at least in the upper grades.

But some of the biggest differences were experienced in the early grades because COVID-19 interrupted preschool and impacted children in the classroom and in virtual instruction, she said.

Finally, Beldotti presented data related to ninth grade students in the district that showed that 20 percent of those students are off-track to get the 5.5 credits needed to get to 10th grade. Another 16 percent were categorized as “almost on-track,” meaning they were passing four or five courses at the time the data was compiled.

The remaining 65 percent of students were listed as on-track.

Those figures also broke down student performance by average daily attendance: Of the 313 students off-track, 226 were chronically absent.

Member Ben Lee focused on the absentee figure, saying fixing that would help bring the numbers up.

“Of those 226 students, the single biggest driver would be simply getting them into school,” he said.