Pasco schools to target improved student attendance

District officials have sought ways to keep students in classes for years.
An empty classroom at Bloomingdale High School in Hillsborough County. [Skip O'Rourke | Times]
An empty classroom at Bloomingdale High School in Hillsborough County. [Skip O'Rourke | Times]
Published July 26, 2019

If students aren’t in class, how are they supposed to learn?

Pasco County school district officials repeatedly have asked that question for more than a decade, as they grapple with approaches to improve academic results.

The subject of student attendance returns to the forefront on Tuesday, when the School Board holds a workshop to discuss the scope of its problem and the possible solutions. It stems from the board’s recent conversation about whether to permit students to make up course work missed from unexcused absences.

Vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said at the time she was less concerned about whether students are allowed to make up the assignments, and more interested in why they missed school in the first place. If there’s anything the district can do to help teachers and families stem chronic absenteeism, Beaudoin said, it should do so.

Related: Excessive student absences need attention, Pasco School Board says

Looking at the big picture numbers, the district does not appear to have a major problem.

A report to the board shows that all K-12 grade levels except twelfth have an attendance rate above 93 percent. Seniors log in at 91.2 percent.

The same is true when looking at student groups by ethnicity and race.

That information prompted the staff to break down the data in different ways. They found that attendance rates, while still above 90 percent, have been lowest at Title I schools (92.8 percent), among students receiving free lunches (92.6 percent), and within students receiving special education services (92.4 percent).

They also saw the numbers worsen later in the school year, as more students became “off track” for progression.

Student services director Melissa Musselwhite said the district needs to home in on specific students and their individual situations if it wants to tackle attendance. Schools already use a tracking system that looks at behavior and academic results, such as progress toward completing the grade level, in addition to days missed and other factors such as “engagement.”

That engagement piece is critical, she suggested. It helps educators determine the issues that keep children from coming to class.

A survey in the district’s presentation indicates that the top reason for absences, at 84 percent, has been sickness. But other concerns also come into play.

Among them, nearly 20 percent of respondents said they were too stressed to come to school. Seven percent said they did not want to be teased or bullied, while another seven percent said they did not want to face work that was too difficult.

Six percent said no one seemed to care whether they were present or not.

Going forward, plans call for delving deeper into issues as whether absences vary by semester, by teacher and by subject matter, among other possibilities. How the message is communicated and what is done to help also could get greater attention.

The student services team plans to review the concerns and current actions in place, and to seek board member guidance for how to proceed in stemming absenteeism.

The workshop is set to begin at 4 p.m.