With no major COVID surges, the end of “close contact” quarantines, and a much more stable transportation and staffing picture, Chicago Public Schools had high hopes for turning a corner this year on lower than usual attendance and disruptive student behavior.
Indeed, the district has made promising headway: Campuses have seen chronic absenteeism dip for most student groups, including students with disabilities and English learners. They have cut suspensions in half.
But here and across the country, both attendance and behavior remain central challenges.
In Chicago, overall attendance remains just as low as last year, district officials cautioned principals during a recent meeting though the district said in a statement the rate ticked up above last year’s February rate, to about 88%. Chronic absenteeism — defined as missing roughly a month of classes in a school year — remains well above pre-pandemic levels and increased slightly for Asian American and white students, according to an internal data analysis obtained by Chalkbeat.
Black students saw the most marked drop in absenteeism, but more than 40% are chronically absent this year — still well above the 27% rate pre-pandemic. And while suspensions are down markedly, overall student discipline is up slightly over last year.
Amid the district’s push for academic recovery, students need to be in the classrooms to learn. Because absenteeism and discipline affect vulnerable students disproportionately, they can compound the more significant learning setbacks these students experienced during the pandemic.
Chicago is not an outlier in continuing to grapple with these issues, said Hedy Chang of the national group Attendance Works.
“Kids lost so much time,” she said. “This is not going to be solved overnight.”
District officials say they are encouraged by the attendance and school climate gains. They credit an increase in the number of students participating in after-school activities and the ability to intervene faster when students start missing school or acting out in class, among other measures.
District data shows hopeful signs — and some causes for concern
The elementary school Renye Owens’ fourth grade son attends has been preaching the mantra of regular attendance this school year. An email from the school — Jane Addams Elementary on the city’s West Side — arrived in the early weeks of the year urging parents to get students to school and voicing concern about an uptick in students who were leaving early. More recently, the school’s newsletter talked up regular attendance and on-time arrival.
“With gratitude,” the newsletter said, “we thank our parents who have supported our attendance policy.”
In Owens’ case, that’s preaching to the choir: This year and last, the mom of two has been a stickler for making sure her kids are in class every day. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, her son came home with exciting news. Because his attendance had been consistent, he had earned a Friday without the school’s mandatory uniform.
Instead of his usual khakis and a baby-blue button-down, the fourth grader got to wear jeans and a casual sweatshirt.
“He was happy about it and he felt proud,” she said.
It’s not surprising that attendance is top of mind at Addams and other Chicago schools.
Last school year, chronic absenteeism districtwide soared to 45%, compared with 24% on the eve of the COVID outbreak. An earlier analysis by Chalkbeat showed the city’s charter schools and district-run campuses with majority Black student populations were hit hardest by the drop in attendance. Increased absenteeism was an issue across Illinois.
This year, Chicago has seen absenteeism rates dip for Black and Latino students, English learners, and students with disabilities. So far, 47% of students with disabilities have been flagged as chronically absent — down from 52% last year, but still significantly up from fewer than a third pre-pandemic.
Among Asian American and white students, absenteeism actually increased slightly this year, to 20% and 26% respectively.
Overall attendance has tracked fairly closely to last year’s, though the district avoided the massive drop during the omicron surge in January 2022. The average rate has remained well below the 95% goal the district had long set for its campuses before COVID struck.
Suspensions — in school and especially out of school — are down significantly, but discipline overall has increased. The district said that data reflect a roughly 48% drop in serious or criminal misconduct on campus, but an increase in more minor disruptive behaviors.
What Chicago is seeing is in line with national trends, Chang said. Last year, the delta variant surge disrupted the all-important first month of school, when students get into the campus routines and forge ties with peers and teachers; the chance to reset at the start of the second semester was upended by omicron.
But the absence of such massive across-the-board disruptions this year hasn’t meant that attendance has bounced back to normal — a sign of the long-lasting effects of the outbreak, Chang said. Schools continue to struggle with reengaging families and students, some of whom took on jobs and other responsibilities during virtual learning they’ve been reluctant to give up.
Chang said she is also not surprised to see absenteeism tick up for Chicago’s white and Asian American students. She points to recent Connecticut data showing that even as that state has seen those rates dip for high-needs student groups, rates for peers with lower needs have inched up.
Districts have focused their efforts to intervene on the students hit hardest by the pandemic. But some of the fallout — including the anxiety students can feel as they struggle to catch up academically, often with physical symptoms that can keep them at home — cuts across race and class.
Still, said Chang, “We are seeing some recovery in some places, and that’s usually because people have done some intentional work to get kids back to school.”
Chicago bets big on after-school programs and early intervention
In Chicago, the district says schools have stepped up outreach to families and tracked students’ attendance, behavior, and academic performance closely so school counselors and other staff can check in and intervene more promptly.
The district also said it made major new investments in mental health services, restorative justice coordinators, coaches, and training, and climate coordinators. It put more money into its lauded Choose to Change program, which offers mentoring to students affected by violence and involvement with the criminal justice system. And it’s looking at expanding home visits and other ways to intervene with chronically absent students.
“We are optimistic these investments will lead to improved attendance rates,” the district said in its statement.
Officials say expanded after-school programs, including more opportunities for students with disabilities, are key. The number of students districtwide participating in such programs jumped from 64,000 last year to 77,000 this year — almost 30% of Chicago’s enrollment. After-school participation has grown across all student groups, and the attendance rate is up to about 73%.
At Brunson Elementary, on the city’s West Side, school leaders say relationships on campus play a crucial role in boosting attendance.
The school enlisted “attendance heroes” this year — teachers, administrators, and cafeteria staff, each employee responsible for a specific group of students. They offer encouragement when children come to school consistently, check in with families when students are no-shows, and pause in school hallways to say, “We missed you,” when they return.
Meanwhile, more opportunities to engage in arts, sports, and other enrichment activities along with household item giveaways and other resources for families are helping increase engagement. Attendance is at 87%, a 2% increase over the first part of last school year.
“Our attendance is growing, but no one is at 95% in our network,” said assistant principal LaToya Woods.
Darlene O’Banner, the great-grandmother of two students at Earle STEM Academy on the South Side, said her campus has done a lot this year to rekindle the joy of school and, with that, student and parent engagement. It recently hosted a Black History Month celebration complete with a bouncy house and music, and is getting ready to temporarily turn the gym into a skating rink, she said.
O’Banner, an Englewood community leader who like Owens at Addams serves on a parent advisory board for the nonprofit Kids First Chicago, said she feels a strict COVID-era message that children should stay home over even the mildest symptoms is still dampening attendance. It’s time for schools to move on, she said.
She tests her great-grandchildren for COVID at the first sign of illness, but she said being in the classroom is just too important to keep a COVID-free student with a runny nose home.
“COVID is still here,” she said, “but it’s not killing us.”
Chang says redoubling efforts to strengthen relationships as well as expanding summer and after-school opportunities — ideally in tandem with nonprofits and other community organizations — are key. She pointed to an initiative Attendance Work helped with in Connecticut to expand the state’s successful teacher home visit program to include more frequent visits, not just by educators but also by district staff and community partners.
“We really need a whole community year-round approach,” she said. “It’s not possible to just do this with what’s in the regular school day.”
Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools.