Absentee rates under scrutiny as new school year begins

Absentee rates under scrutiny as new school year begins

WOONSOCKET – Teacher absentee rates and their impact on student education have come to the forefront recently in Providence’s struggling school system, but they’re also a problem in Woonsocket, where high teacher absentee rates are drawing warnings from School Committee members as students head back to school.

Last Wednesday, Aug. 28, committee member Donald Burke reminded teachers of their responsibility to students during a meeting in the Hamlet Middle School cafeteria. Describing the classroom as the “sacred space of the school,” he told those gathered that both teacher and student must be present to achieve any measure of success.

“The students need you. They need you there every day. We all know the importance of constant behaviors and habits,” he said.

According to data compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Education and released in 2018, three schools in the district had teacher chronic absentee rates higher than 5 percent, the threshold at which the state begins docking points on a district’s report card. Teachers are considered chronically absent when they miss 10 percent or more of school days, or 18 days over the course of the school year.

According to the report, 6.7 percent of teachers at Globe Park Elementary School and 5.5 percent of teachers at Woonsocket High School were chronically absent in 2018. The data does not include long-term, pre-approved absences or absences due to professional development.

One school, Hamlet Middle School, had a teacher chronic absentee rate of 18.2 percent, well over the 10 percent threshold at which the state further lowers a school’s score on the district report card. Nearly a fifth of teachers at Hamlet missed more than three weeks of school over the course of school year.

The remaining schools had teacher chronic absentee rates between 0 and 5 percent, a rate more in line with the city’s neighbors. In North Smithfield, Halliwell Memorial Elementary School had the highest rate of teacher chronic absenteeism at 5 percent. In Cumberland, the teacher chronic absentee rate topped out at 10 percent at Ashton Elementary School.

Other School Committee members also commented on the district’s teacher and student absentee rates, with committee Chairman Paul Bourget saying the topic was a main focus at the recent teacher convocation. In response to a question from committee member Rebecca Capwell, Supt. Patrick McGee said the district has no particular program to address teacher absenteeism, but the topic remains a matter of concern for schools.

“When teachers are exhibiting an inordinate number of days, there are conversations that are had with those staff members to see if there’s anything we can do to support them,” he said.

The comments come on the heels of an initiative started last year to address high rates of student absenteeism in the city’s school, which remain far higher than teacher absentee rates. According to the RIDE data, most elementary schools in the city have student chronic absentee rates between 20 and 30 percent, with the rate at Governor Aram J. Pothier reaching 33.7 percent. The rate continues to grow as students get older, with 31.6 percent of students at Villanova Middle School, 38.7 percent of students at Hamlet Middle School and 49.4 percent of students at Woonsocket High School – half the student body – missing 18 or more days during the school year.

“Parents have to take on the responsibility to make sure their children go to school,” said Bourget.

Burke also placed the responsibility of making sure students get to school on parents, saying being a student is the most important job of children from age four to age 18. Last year, a “Be Here” initiative by the Woonsocket Education Department included a public relations campaign aimed at educating parents about the importance of getting children to class. The campaign also tried out creative ways to increase student attendance, such as a “walking school bus” at Citizens and Pothier Elementary Schools that had teachers knocking on doors in the nearby Morin Heights neighborhood to pick up children before the start of school.

Though it’s too early to tell whether the initiative impacted student attendance rates, district administrators said they plan to continue the focus on increasing student attendance as they head into the new school year.

Committee approves two-year contract for Supt. McGee

In a separate matter, the committee approved a new, two-year contract for Supt. Patrick McGee. The agreement includes an annual salary of $153,000 per year in addition to benefits that include 25 vacation days, health insurance, a $2,000 gasoline reimbursement and up to $4,000 in travel reimbursement for professional development activities. The salary is a 2 percent increase over McGee’s previous salary of $150,000. The contract expires on June 30, 2021.