Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Most high schoolers at RCSD are chronically absent. Here’s how the district is responding

A stock photo of a green chalkboard behind a wood desk in a school classroom with white walls.
Adobe Stock
About 72% of secondary students in the district missed 10% or more school days according to the most recent NYSED data documenting the 2022-23 school year.

Chronic absenteeism at the Rochester City School District has improved for younger students, but state data shows nearly three-quarters of high schoolers have not been regularly attending class.

Administrators tasked with improving attendance rates say they’re working on a multi-step plan of action that includes more people in the district, including teachers and students, to make broader changes that may get more students to classrooms.

The district’s attendance department has identified five key areas they will focus on going forward to get more students to class. Those priorities include addressing family crises, housing instability, school safety, mental health conditions, and transportation.

“It's not just simply the work of just the attendance but holistically, as an academic environment, looking at what are we doing to support our students from pre-K on,” Deputy Superintendent Ruth Turner said at a recent school board meeting. “So that when we get to the ninth grade, we don't have this huge problem that we have both academically in attendance, and also social-emotionally.”

However, if the district is successful in its goal to cut chronic absenteeism by 25% by 2028, more than half of students would still miss classes.

The scope of the matter

Most students enrolled at the Rochester City School District have not been showing up for class regularly for years, according to New York state data.

The most recent New York State Education Department (NYSED) data is from the 2022-23 school year, and it shows that the chronic absenteeism rate was higher for high schoolers (72%) than elementary and middle school students (58%).

“We see a lot of school disengagement and it's really challenging for us to really provide a meaningful support for that,” Turner said. “The further they fall behind (academically), the less engaged they are in school.”

Students who miss 10% or more of school days are considered chronically absent. For all grades, most of those students are listed as economically disadvantaged.

Tracking down families, identifying homelessness

Carly Jelsma, the district’s attendance director, said her department has focused efforts on correcting wrong addresses for families as of this past fall.

“We have corrected quite a bit and we do believe it does make a difference, because we're able to provide a bus to that student, or to at least have the communication home to school cleaned up,” Jelsma said. “But here's the other layer...we identified a lot of families that were actually homeless.”

Finding and identifying homeless students is imperative to help them get essential needs met, Jelsma said, which is a key step toward making it possible for them to regularly attend school.

There were 1,755 homeless students in the district during the 2022-23 school year, according to state data.

Crystal Clark, the district’s executive director of student support services, told WXXI News that her office worked with more than 2,000 students who were homeless or in unstable housing as of February this school year.

“Some of our students are, or were, in the street homeless,” Clark said. “One family was in a wooded area, and we received a phone call about the family ... and we went there to go and support them. Any type of thing could have happened to the family or their students.”

In 2022, the district received a three-year grant of $750,000 to address student homelessness through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act.

The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law dating back to 1987 addressing the right to education for homeless students. According to the law, children and teens who do not have “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” are considered homeless.

“There is a housing crisis in Monroe County,” Clark said. “So, students and families are having difficulty with finding housing, permanent housing, and being able to maintain that housing.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.