Empty seats: Chronic absenteeism spikes in Arizona schools in recent years

Feb 1, 2023, 4:35 AM
(KTAR News Photo/Jeremy Schnell)...
(KTAR News Photo/Jeremy Schnell)
(KTAR News Photo/Jeremy Schnell)

This is the first of a four-part series examining chronic absenteeism in Arizona schools.

PHOENIX — A father left to care for his two stepchildren after their mother passed away struggled to get them to and from school.

“He did come to the school and said, ‘I can’t,’” explained Betsy Hargrove, superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, where the kids attended.

“‘It doesn’t work with my work calendar. I can’t get them to school on time and pick them up on time.’”

The kids started missing school. The dad felt he ran out of options.

The school eventually stepped in, working with staff members and the district’s transportation department to find a nearby bus stop where the dad could drop off and pick up the kids at a time that fit his work schedule.

As a result, the kids’ attendance improved, and the dad no longer felt they needed to move schools.

Even so, chronic absenteeism is a problem in Arizona.

The issue, defined as missing 10% of the school year, skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic in line with national trends, according to a new report by the Helios Education Foundation in partnership with WestEd.

It looked at K-8th grade students in Arizona and found up to 14% of students were chronically absent before the pandemic. That spiked to 22% — or nearly one in five – in 2021.

Nationally, the percentage of students chronically absent doubled during the pandemic and is higher than ever, at more than 20%. That’s according to Attendance Works, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to improve school attendance.

Paul Perrault, senior vice president of community impact and learning for the Helios Education Foundation, told KTAR News 92.3 FM the chronic absence rate spiked for all K-8 students in Arizona during the pandemic but some more than others.

“Nearly one in every two Native Americans were chronically absent during the pandemic,” Perrault said, adding that’s up from about a quarter prior to the pandemic.

Black and Latino students also saw their chronic absence rates double.

There were also significant increases for English language learners, students in special education, and students from low-income families.

Perrault noted missing too much school can lead students to fall behind academically.

“It gets really hard to catch up, and suddenly you start seeing yourself getting lower grades,” he said. “You’re not interested in being in school – you’re disengaged.”

Research shows students who are chronically absent are at higher risk of dropping out of high school, which can divert them from going on to college or limit their career options.

Perrault noted students are not missing quite as much school anymore.

“But chronic absence is still up,” he said. “We haven’t returned fully to that pre-pandemic absence rate.”

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Empty seats: Chronic absenteeism spikes in Arizona schools in recent years