DPS leads major districts in absences

Jennifer C. Kerr
Associated Press

Washington — Detroit Public Schools has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism among the nation’s largest 100 school districts, according to discouraging new figures released Wednesday on how many students are habitually missing school.

Nearly 58 percent of students in DPS, Michigan’s largest school district, were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year, according to the first release of such data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Among the states, Michigan ranks 10th nationally with 18.5 percent of its public school students absent 15 days or more in 2013-14.

Other Michigan school districts with high absentee rates included Battle Creek Public Schools, where 54.4 percent of students were chronically absent; River Rouge Public Schools, with a rate of 42.3 percent, and Pontiac, with a rate of 39.1 percent.

For some of those districts, the Michigan Department of Education reported even higher rates of chronic absenteeism for 2014-15 in data released last fall.

In River Rouge, more than half of students — 57.2 percent — missed at least 10 days last school year, according to the state Center for Educational Performance and Information. In DPS, nearly two-thirds of students — 64.8 percent — were chronically absent in 2014-15, according to the state data.

Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent for DPS, said the district is working to encourage regular attendance.

“When examining DPS’ data from September 2015 through April 2016, we found that on average there are slightly more than 50 percent of our students are chronically absent,” Meriweather said in a statement. “This is a serious problem, which I would term a leading indicator, that impacts everything else we are trying to accomplish at the district.”

Meriweather said DPS is working with state and national experts to address the issue and that the district’s Academic Advisory Council has two committees working on “solutions for this critical issue.”

Overall, the national average of chronic absenteeism was 13 percent, or about 6.5 million students, the Education Department said. “Chronic absenteeism is a national problem,” Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., said in a statement on Wednesday. “Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child’s education.”

The report was the first release of chronic absentee figures from the department.

Detroit is among the new communities to sign up for the My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative, a program the Obama administration began last fall that now works with states and local groups in 30 communities to identify mentors to help habitually absent kids get back on track.

Bob Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Everyone Graduates Center, called the national numbers disturbing.

“If you’re not there, you don’t learn, and then you fall behind. You don’t pass your classes. You don’t get the credits in high school, and that’s what leads to dropping out,” Balfanz said.

An Associated Press analysis also found the absenteeism problem acute in the nation’s capital, where nearly one-third of students were absent 15 days or more in a single school year. Washington state and Alaska were not far behind, with absentee rates hovering around one-quarter of students with that level of absences.

NBA star Kevin Durant is working with the Obama administration on the mentor initiative. “Sometimes the reasons come down to not having what you need to be present and ready … like a book bag, school supplies, or the support of a caring adult,” Durant said in a statement.

According to AP’s analysis, girls were just as likely as boys to habitually miss school. Nearly 22 percent of all American Indian students were reported as regularly absent, followed by Native Hawaiians at 21 percent and black students at 17 percent. Hispanic and white students were close to the national average of 13 percent.

Students are regularly missing school for lots of reasons, Balfanz says. Many are poor and could be staying home to care for a sibling or helping with elder care. Others are avoiding school because they’re being bullied or they worry it’s not safe. And then, there are some students who simply skip.

As part of its Civil Rights Data Collection, the department surveyed all public schools in the country, covering over 95,000 schools and 50 million students. Roughly 1-in-7 of all K-12 public schools nationwide reported having not a single chronically absent student that year.

Chronic absenteeism is one of several topics covered in the data collection. It also looked at school discipline and high-rigor course offerings.

Other figures from the report:

■Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to get one or more out-of-school suspensions as their white counterparts.

■Black children represent 19 percent of preschoolers, yet they account for 47 percent of preschool kids getting suspended.

■White students make up 41 percent of preschoolers, and 28 percent of preschool kids with suspensions.

■Nationwide, almost half of high schools offered classes in calculus, and more than three-quarters offered Algebra II.

■33 percent of high schools with substantial black and Latino enrollment offered calculus. That compares to 56 percent of high schools with low numbers of black and Latino children that offered calculus. Similar gaps were seen for physics, chemistry and Algebra II.

The Detroit News contributed.