Rate of students missing classes on the rise, ‘Schools in many ways became optional’ | Education

More than four in 10 Louisiana public school students are classified as truant, a fast-growing problem that plagues low- and high-performing districts alike.

“The system to address this is not running efficiently,” said state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley.

The truancy rate has risen by 22% in the past five years and totaled 40.21% during the 2020-21 school year, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education. That translates to about 277,000 students statewide.

Truancy means a student has five or more unexcused absences or tardies in one semester, and it sometimes signals the student is in danger of eventually dropping out.

Officials call the problem one of the reasons student achievement has trailed most of the nation for generations.

“If you are not in the classroom you are not going to go very far,” said Ronnie Morris, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and one of those behind a new task force to study the issue.

Students missing classes are not limited to struggling school systems.

The truancy rate is 39% in the Zachary School District, which has been the top-rated district in Louisiana for years.

It is 39% in Central public schools, 46% in the St. Tammany School District and 46% in the St. Bernard Parish School District – all three of which routinely rank among the state’s top-achieving systems.

Others include the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, 56%; Ascension, 11%; Livingston, 36%; Lafayette, 38%; Jefferson, 48%; West Baton Rouge, 36% and Iberville, 52%.

The St. Helena Parish School District, one of the lowest ranked in the state, has a 70% truancy rate, according to state figures.

Brumley noted that the issue has been around for decades and is a nationwide challenge.

“For some students during the pandemic school in many ways became optional to them,” he said. “They were remote learners. And it is just going to take some time to change that mindset.”

Doris Voitier, a BESE member and superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system, made the same point.

“With COVID keeping their children home I think attendance and absenteeism has increased significantly over the past two years,” Voitier said.

The statewide truancy rate rose from 28% during the 2019-20 school year to 40% in 2020-21, the later being the first full school year amid the pandemic.

It shot up from 33% during the 2016-17 school year to 48% in 2017-18, with the later following historic flooding in the Baton Rouge area.

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Morris, a retired engineer and substitute teacher who lives in Baton Rouge, said he was shocked when he saw Louisiana’s truancy rate. “How it it possible nobody is talking about it,” he recalled saying.

“We want to provide kids with the best possibilities and to pursue their interests with passion,” he said. “But the enabler is attendance.”

Less than half of children between kindergarten and third grade are reading on grade level, another major education issue.

“I think that literacy and truancy are the cancers in education,” Morris said. “They are feeding poverty and it is going to kill us if we don’t do something about it.”

The state task force, which held its first meeting last month, includes school officials, judges and others.

It is led by Quentina Timoll, chief of staff for the state Department of Education.

The aim is to gather all the representatives of a sprawling system into one study group, then make recommendations to the state Department of Education and possibly the Legislature.

The goal is to trim the statewide truancy rate from 40% to 28%.

One of today’s success stories is in Ascension Parish, which has a truancy rate of 11%, one of the lowest in the state, and a sophisticated system to address truancy early.

Schools are encouraged to contact parents at the three, five, seven and 10-day marks for missing classes without an excuse.

In some cases school officials visit the home of the student.

Under a new pilot project, a truancy panel will allow parents to appear as they would in truancy court to see what is blocking school attendance, including mental health, transportation, child custody, domestic violence, food security or other issues.

A written plan will then be crafted, and signed by the parents and others in the hearing and may involve counseling, child care assistance or other steps.

Latest Truancy Percentage

State of Louisiana 40.21

  • East Baton Rouge Parish 55.81
  • Ascension Parish 11.43
  • Livingston Parish 36.23
  • Lafayette Parish 38.40
  • Evangeline Parish 34.39
  • Iberia Parish 61.92
  • Orleans Parish 7.72
  • Jefferson Parish 47.67
  • St Tammany Parish 45.69

Source: Department of Education

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