PORTLAND — On Sept. 7, Mayor Ethan Strimling proclaimed September “Student Attendance Awareness Month,” declaring a commitment to reducing chronic student absences from school.
The proclamation came a day after Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said at a Sept. 6 School Board meeting that improving student attendance is a priority this year.
“Good attendance is essential to academic success and far too many students are at risk academically because they are chronically absent,” Botana said.
Botana said absence is considered chronic when a student misses at least 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days.
So how many students in Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, are chronically absent?
According to data from the Maine Department of Education and PPS, not that many.
Attendance for the 2015-2016 school year was nearly 95 percent at the city’s 17 public schools. The lowest rate, according to statistics provided by PPS, was at Portland High School, where 900 students achieved just over 91 percent attendance for the year.
So why all the emphasis on attendance?
Assistant Superintendent of School Management Jeanne Crocker said even though PPS has a high attendance rate, more can always be done to keep students in school.
Crocker said regular school attendance makes a difference in the lives of all students, and there are several ramifications associated with spotty attendance. Chief among those, she said, is the drop-out rate.
“So much of a person’s adult life can be linked to beginning years,” she said.
As spotty attendance grows for a student, they fall behind academically, and Crocker said staying behind catches up on students, and can result in a student thinking he or she won’t graduate.
“Our high school drop-out issues that Portland has, and many places in state or country have, very often can be traced back to attendance in elementary school,” Crocker said.
Crocker said it makes sense to bring attention to student attendance in September, since it is the start of the school year, and it’s key for younger students and their families to know the importance of regular attendance.
“The school experience is something you have to be there to really have,” Crocker said. “I think that is part of why we’re trying to get the word out about how really important school attendance is. Especially at the younger grades.”
Crocker said city schools take their own steps to address the issue, often calling the student’s home with a positive message, rather than a punitive one. The school or district will also bring parents in to discuss the issue, and there are programs like the Walking School Bus to get students to school. PPS also partners with Count ME In, an organization aimed at increasing attendance.
Meanwhile, the attendance rate for PPS is similar to the rate statewide. According to data from the state, the statewide attendance rate has hovered at or around 94 percent since the 2005-2006 school year.
The numbers were similar for other large school districts in the state, too.
During the 2014-2015 school year, Bangor Public Schools, with 10 schools, and Lewiston, with eight, had attendance rates of just over 94 percent. And the South Portland School Department, with its eight schools, had an attendance rate of nearly 96 percent.
Portland’s Casco Bay High School, with 400 students, had almost 93 percent in attendance last school year. Deering High School, with more than 1,000 students, had nearly 92 percent attendance. Portland Arts and Technology High School, with its 550 students, had nearly 95 percent.
King, Lincoln, and Lyman Moore middle schools, each with more than 500 students, achieved just over 95 percent attendance. The city’s two island schools, Cliff Island and Peaks Island, were similar: Cliff Island, with its four students, had over 98 percent in attendance, and Peaks Island, with just shy of 50 students, had more than 95 percent.
All of the city’s elementary schools had at least 95 percent of students in attendance. East End Community School and its 467 students had more than 95 percent; Fred P. Hall Elementary School, with 421 students, the Harrison Lyseth Elementary School with 524 students and the Howard C. Reiche Community School with 500 students, all had more than 96 percent in attendance.
Longfellow Elementary and the Ocean Avenue School, with nearly 350 and nearly 500 students, respectively, also had more than 96 percent in attendance. Presumpscot Elementary, with just about 300 students, and Riverton Elementary, with more than 520 students, each had nearly 96 percent in attendance.
According to data from the state, attendance rates have been steady for the past few years. In the 2014-2015 school year, the overall attendance rate for all the schools was more than 95 percent. In that year, no school dipped below 94 percent, with the lowest at Peaks Island School, at just over 94 percent, and the highest at Casco Bay, nearly 97 percent. MDOE statistics did not include Portland Arts and Technology High School.
For the 2013-2014 school year, overall student attendance rate again hovered in the mid-to-high 90 percent range. The average for that year, again without statistics for PATHS, was nearly 96 percent.
A “walking school bus” makes its way to along Oxford Street in Portland on the way to East End Community School. The annual project is one way the Portland Public Schools help reinforce the importance of school attendance.