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Graduation concerns prompt review of attendance figures

March 24, 2013

WOONSOCKET – The School Department is weighing new programs to help at-risk students prepare for graduation, but School Committeeman Christopher Roberts believes local parents should also have a role in that process.
Roberts wants statistics on school attendance for at-risk students included in an upcoming committee review into what steps could be taken to improve at-risk students’ chances of complying with new state graduation requirements.
Next year’s graduating class will be the first required to show at least partial proficiency on state assessment testing for math and reading and based on the results from testing for this year’s junior class, as many as 160 may need to re-test in order to earn their diplomas, according to Patrick McGee, the department’s director of curriculum and assessment.
The projection that as many as 4,100 of next year’s seniors statewide are at risk has opened a lively debate in the state as to the validity of the current testing model and whether the state’s math skill targets have been set too high.
The state Department of Education has refuted those criticisms with Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist warning school officials not to back off on student achievement goals.
The high school has shown improvement in its New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) results in recent years but only 16 percent of the juniors who took the test last October showed proficiency in math — up from last year but still below the state average.
The juniors showed a higher percentage of proficiency, 65 percent, on the reading test.
State Department of Education data on the high school also tracks attendance and listed attendance for 2011-2012 at 84 percent and the rate of chronic absenteeism for the same period at 51 percent.
Roberts believes that some students not meeting proficiency in math may be “trying hard and struggling in math as many of us would, but I think there is definitely going to be a high percentage of that which is attendance-related,” he said.
Some parents, Roberts maintained, are not taking proper steps to make sure their children are in school and should be held accountable when they are not.
The School Committee has seen truancy cases where kindergarten students missed 30 and 40 days, and in some instances as many as 80 missed half a school year, according to Roberts.
The state has laws governing school attendance and ultimately parents can be held accountable if their children are not in school, according to Roberts. The school department was without a full-time truancy officer as a result of past budgets cuts but has since restored that position, he noted.
The school department can also refer chronic cases of poor attendance to its legal counsel for petitioning truants and their families into court, Roberts pointed out. The School Committee is in the process of a making changes to its attendance policies that he hopes will include beefed-up penalties for truancy.
“If you can’t get your child to school 30 or 40 days a year, you are going to be hearing from our attorney,” he said.
School Committee Chairwoman Vimala Phongsavanh said the committee will hear more about the academic assistance programs it already has in place when McGee updates the panel on the issue next week. The panel will also be scheduling presentations on the district’s overall NECAP results in the weeks ahead, she noted.
Like Roberts, Phongsavanh said she believes more community involvement and parental participation will be needed to find solutions to the graduation concerns.
Woonsocket’s rate of chronic absenteeism is the highest in the state, Phongsavanh said, and may well have an impact on overall student achievement.
“A student is chronically absent if they miss 18 days of school or more,” Phongsavanh said. The absences do not happen all at once typically and as a result can affect a student’s work through the course of a year, she noted.
Phongsavanh is working with various partner groups in the community to plan neighborhood forums where the problem of absenteeism and its impact on student performance can be aired.
“If students are not there, their grades go down,” she said.
School Committeewoman Anita McGuire-Forcier has asked the committee to also consider the impact of English as a Second Language needs on student NECAP achievement and what should be done in that area for improvement.
Roberts, however, maintained that ultimately a student’s attendance should be considered in their eligibility for any new remedial instruction programs that they might be eligible to take.
“I don’t think there is an obligation for us to cater to someone that is not attending school,” he said.

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