Testimony of Rashida Young, Chief School Performance Officer
Good morning, Chairman Mendelson, and members of the Committee of the Whole. Thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s hearing on attendance and truancy. I am Rashida Young, Chief School Performance Officer for the DC Public Charter School Board.
I would like to begin by recognizing all the hard work and creativity that has gone into keeping students engaged and attending school throughout the pandemic. From the first days of the school closures to the day schools reopened, school leaders, teachers and staff have worked hard to connect families to resources so that all the challenges of the pandemic did not interfere with school attendance. I also want to recognize families who helped their students maintain strong attendance during distance learning. For so many students, especially the youngest ones, the extra support of their families made all the difference in their virtual education.
Of course, there have always been barriers to students’ attendance, such as family responsibilities, transportation issues, part-time jobs, and housing instability. The pandemic both created new challenges and, in many ways, exacerbated those we already faced. During the months of distance learning, a reliable internet connection and a working device were necessary for students to engage in lessons. And the in-person activities that provided extra motivation for students to attend school were no longer accessible.
Our schools have been working to address both recurring and new challenges to attendance. They leverage community partnerships and resources available to families, and many teachers and school support staff go the extra mile to provide individualized support. We know there is diversity among our schools and our families, which means that addressing chronic absenteeism and truancy requires a variety of strategies and not a one size fits all solution.
Due to the unique challenges of the pandemic and distance learning, we anticipated in-seat attendance would be lower and truancy would be higher in SY20-21. And as we expected, in-seat attendance decreased by 3.9 percentage points to 88.4% (excluding adult schools) compared to SY19-20. The truancy rate increased from 26.8% in SY18-19 (last full school year) to 35.6%. While these rates are concerning, we recognize that last school year was unlike any other and, therefore, likely an outlier in terms of student attendance. We are confident that schools went above and beyond their usual work to try to engage students who struggled to consistently attend school virtually.
When broken down, the data reveals some interesting trends. Elementary schools saw the largest decline in attendance from 92.7% to 86.2% which could be attributed to lack of routines or, for many students, reliance on family to navigate technology to access school. On the other hand, high schools saw a slight increase in attendance from 91.9% to 92.3%. We expect this is because older students were better able to use technology and appreciated schedule flexibility. Schools spent the spring and summer evaluating what worked about distance learning for older students and thinking about how to better incorporate those aspects into classroom learning. Alternative and adult schools, in particular, leveraged the use of technology and schedule flexibility for their students who often have many more responsibilities outside of school.
We also wanted to note an observation about attendance on Wednesdays throughout last school year. Many LEAs across the city opted to use asynchronous instruction each Wednesday, rather than synchronous, live, instruction, making it more difficult to gauge student attendance on those days. For this reason, Wednesdays saw the largest decrease in in-seat attendance. The drop from 92.6% to 83.9% was most likely the result of this programmatic choice. We suspect that students either struggled to motivate themselves to participate on asynchronous learning days or, if they did, they did not provide the documentation required to demonstrate that they were present and learning asynchronously.
The challenges of virtual learning and attendance are why we continue to believe it is so important school buildings are open this year. We know this school year still presents unique challenges to attendance, such as ongoing concerns about COVID safety, unprecedented disruptions to Metrorail service, and navigating quarantine guidance. However, public charter schools remain prepared to address these issues and have been working diligently and creatively all year to boost attendance rates. Charter LEAs and DC PCSB are also working to understand which of last year’s attendance and truancy data points were outliers due to virtual learning and which may continue to impact education for months or years to come. We are also working to understand which lessons learned can be leveraged in service of students in the future, such as the promising trend among high school students.
Our schools have shown, and continue to show, a commitment to reengaging students and increasing attendance above pre-pandemic levels. They consistently find different and innovative ways to ensure in-seat attendance improves in a meaningful way. DC PCSB, LEAs, and our partners across the District, including the DME, OSSE, and DCPS, are committed to coming out of the pandemic stronger than before, and we are collaborating in order to see that through.
Thank you for allowing me to testify, and I look forward to your questions. Now I will turn it over to Paul PCS to discuss their experience last school year, and what they are doing to build a strong culture of attendance.