With a chronic absentee rate of 10.8 percent, BKW is working to get more students to class 

Enterprise file photo

Superintendent Timothy Mundell, right, stands alongside members of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education who, from left, are Kimberly Lovell, Randy Bashwinger, and Nathan Elble.

HILLTOWNS — Chronic absenteeism, or missing 10-percent of total school days in a school year, is one of three critical metrics tracked by Harvard in its study of Berne-Knox-Westerlo and 29 other rural districts; the other two are college readiness and college enrollment.

In February, Berne-Knox-Westerlo superintendent Timothy Mundell met with Harvard’s National Center for Rural Education Research Networks, which monitors BKW among a pool of several other school districts in New York and Ohio for research, to review the network’s attendance and achievement data.

“Through that data analysis we learned that … in our district, pertaining to math,” Mundell said at BKW’s Feb. 24 school board meeting, “that one day of absence in math by a student is equivalent to three-and-one-half days of lost academic growth. Process that.”

“That’s frightening,” responded board member Matthew Tedeschi.

BKW’s rate of chronic absence is 7.4 percent in the elementary school and 14.2 percent in the secondary school — a rate of 10.8 percent overall — Mundell said.

Across the state, the rate of chronic absenteeism was about 19-percent in public schools during the 2016-17 school year, according to a report released by the New York State Comptroller. 

That report found that the number of absences reported in the State Education Department’s system and a district’s own system did not match for 45 percent of the students studied. The report made recommendations for school districts to set up attendance codes that would be accurate.

On BKW’s low rate relative to the state average, Mundell praised the school’s environment, which is largely improved with the ongoing capital project (see related story).

“I think our students genuinely want to come to school,” Mundel told The Enterprise. “They feel comfortable and safe at school, even though we may have to work through issues from time to time. When combined with the discipline data, which is way down, and achievement, the three data points tell a story of students feeling safe at school, so they can focus on learning, and they try to do their best.”

Still, it doesn’t take much to set a child on a path of absenteeism.

“I think initially kids learn patterns of behavior,” Mundell told The Enterprise through email this week, “and over time those become ingrained as learned behaviors. As a school, we should create a positive environment, where learning, curiosity, and social development occur through coordinated activities, thus creating positive approaches and value to learning. 

“Obviously, all students are different,” Mundell continued, “with different experiences and family expectations for schooling. Our work often centers around communicating the importance of learning for life and helping young learners understand it over time.”

The measure of chronic absenteeism calls for the inclusion of both excused and unexcused absences in the data set because, in the eyes of the State Education Department, the impact of an absence is not necessarily dampened by the reason for that absence.

For instance, the comptroller’s report, using data from the United States Department of Education, indicates that absences can prevent children from reading at grade level, which in turn elevates the likelihood of dropping out of school altogether.

“When students miss school, regardless of whether it’s for a scheduled break, a regular weekend, or if they’re sick, or if they’re absent for any reason,” said BKW elementary-school teacher Lauren Griggs, “we always see some sort of regression in learning … For example, if a student misses the first lesson of a math skill, they’re already two steps behind when they come in so we have to play catch-up a lot. And it becomes especially difficult for our struggling learners who need extra help to begin with.”

In light of these impacts, Harvard’s National Center for Rural Education Research Networks included absenteeism as a major point of focus.

“NCRERN chose absenteeism, including chronic absenteeism, as our first focus area because of the strong relationship between missing school and student achievement,” NCRERN director Jennifer Ash told The Enterprise.

“Our analyses show that every day of school that a student misses leads to lower student achievement in both math and English language arts," Ash said, "so it’s important for schools and districts to focus not only on chronically absent students, but also on absences for all students. In addition, because absenteeism is measured every day, we’re able to identify quickly whether the programs districts are testing are working or not.”

Ash told The Enterprise that, in the 30 rural districts observed by Harvard’s center, the rate of chronic absence during the 2018-19 school year was 17.4 percent — a touch higher than the rate of 16 percent seen in the program’s nine urban and suburban districts.

“NCRERN is part of a larger initiative, Proving Ground, which works with mostly urban districts to address absenteeism,” Ash said. “Proving Ground has found several interventions that inform parents about the importance of attendance and tells them how many days their child has missed to be effective, including robocalls, postcards that include information about what content the student has missed on the day they were absent, and ‘energy bill’-style letters that put the students’ cumulative absences in context. 

“Proving Ground districts have also hypothesized that some of the reason for absences in high school grades is lack of positive adult relationships in the school,” Ash said, “and, as a result, are currently testing the impact of programs designed to increase students’ connections to an adult at the school, including mentorships.” 

Those adult connections can be harder to install in remote areas like the Hilltowns, where financial and social resources can be equally scarce.

“It is difficult being in an isolated area,” Mundell told The Enterprise. “I am sure there are days when a bus is missed, and that turns into a whole day of absence because the parent cannot provide a ride to school.”

Also critical to the attack on absenteeism is the school’s newly improved counseling center, which houses a psychologist and other mental-health professionals who work with students to improve mental health for students of all ages.

“Kids are going to be intimidated at school,” said William Dergosits, who teaches third-graders at BKW. “They’re walking around the halls and everyone’s bigger than them. It’s stressful.”

The stress of school can contribute to a phenomenon known as school avoidance, where students relieve anxiety by staying home. 

“Research shows that school anxiety increases during a prolonged absence,” Mundell told The Enterprise, “making it harder to return to school. The two emotional sets combine to make a more complex dynamic. Best practice emerging in the field involves cognitive behavioral training, meaning teaching basic skills of coping with anxiety and accepting new social situations, while easing them back into the environment.”

Ultimately, Harvard’s National Center for Rural Education Research Networks will formulate a program that its participant schools will adopt uniformly in order to measure its effectiveness most accurately, though schools are free to implement other programming and policies to supplement that.

Currently, BKW sends a letter out every seven absences a student registers. 

“I know there’s been some pushback,” Mundell told the board of the letters. “Like ‘Why am I getting this letter?’”

Tedeschi asked if it would be possible to meet with parents one-on-one and better contextualize the number of absences within the potential impacts. 

“I mean, as a parent, we’ve all been there,” Tedeschi said at the meeting. “Like, you don’t think your kid has been absent 10 days or 15 days, or whatever, over the course of 180 days. You’re not cognizant of that. If the school’s tracking that — I mean that’s critical.” 

Mundell said the present goal is to work on messaging for parents generally to increase awareness. BKW’s absence policy, which allows for 28 absences over the course of the year, will be reviewed. 

On March 16, Mundell will meet in Pittsburgh with representatives of the other districts in the network to brainstorm effective programming. 

“It should be interesting to hear what their perspectives are in a different state,” Mundell said.

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