Detroit attendance proposal would kick students out of their chosen school for high absenteeism

In the foreground, a student raises their hand. Their face is not visible. In the background, a teacher writes on the whiteboard in a middle school classroom.
A proposed Detroit Public Schools Community District policy would allow for students to be transferred out of their chosen school if they missed too many school days. (Jamie Kelter Davis for Chalkbeat)

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Detroit students enrolled in schools outside their neighborhood could be sent back to their local school if they miss too many days, under a policy proposal from district officials aimed at tackling chronic absenteeism.

The policy would allow schools to seek district approval to transfer a student to their designated feeder pattern school — the one they would be assigned to based on where they live — but only after school officials took a series of steps to communicate with the student’s family about the absences. 

“The transfer would only occur for the following year — not (during) the current school year,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat. 

As of 2022, only about 55% of Detroit Public Schools Community District students attended their assigned neighborhood school, Vitti said. 

The proposal was shared with board members at a school board policy/ad hoc committee meeting Monday. The committee agreed to advance the draft policy to the next school board meeting on Sept. 12 for a first reading by the full board. All district policies must be reviewed by the board twice before they can be voted on.

DPSCD follows a protocol to notify parents or caregivers of a student’s absences. The first contact is recommended to be completed by a teacher for the first two days a student is absent. After every third unexcused absence — the third, sixth, ninth, and so on — a school’s attendance agent can use any of several intervention strategies, including home visits, daily check-ins, parent conferences, and contact with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

Vitti said that with the proposed policy, schools would warn families about the possibility of a transfer if their student’s attendance does not improve, and could request a transfer for a student who ends the school year having been chronically absent, which typically means missing more than 18 days, or 10%, of the school year.

“We would ensure that there were not extenuating circumstances the student or family was dealing with,” such as an illness or death, Vitti wrote to Chalkbeat. “We would also consider the student’s previous attendance at the school, grades, and behavior record. All of this would be reviewed by the District before a transfer was implemented.”

The move is one of several steps DPSCD is taking to address its outsize rate of chronic absenteeism. During the 2022-23 school year, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was 68% — down from 77% the previous year, but still above pre-pandemic levels.

Before the pandemic, DPSCD had committed to a multipronged reform effort to reduce absenteeism, including offering wraparound services for students, hiring attendance agents, and partnering with community organizations.

By the end of 2018-19, in part because of those efforts, chronic absenteeism fell to 62%, from 70% in 2017-18.

The policy proposal, Vitti said, could curb some of the transportation challenges that contribute to student absenteeism.

“On the one hand, principals of neighborhood schools have asked for greater accountability for student attendance,” he said. “They also notice families are placing additional burden on themselves by not attending the school closest to their residence. This creates a greater transportation burden than walking to school or using a District bus route.”

Vitti told board members in July that the district had planned to impose punitive measures several years ago, but held off because of the pandemic. Along with the transfer rule, Vitti said he would propose a policy that would require students to repeat a grade if they miss too much school.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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