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Chicago schools attendance continued to decline last year

Student desks sit in an empty room at Senn High School, with bookshelves and windows in the background.

Schools in Chicago and nationally have continued to grapple with attendance issues as the pandemic wanes.

Max Herman for Chalkbeat

How schools seek to overcome pandemic-related mental health challenges and the broad impact of long-standing inequities.

During the last school year, when academic recovery remained elusive, Chicago schools continued to struggle with lagging attendance, new data show. 

This fall, they are making a fresh push to boost student turnout. 

School-level data for the 2021-22 school year shows attendance in Chicago continued to slide and remained well below pre-pandemic levels. 

The largest declines happened in the city’s charter schools and district-run campuses with majority Black student populations. Shrinking high schools on Chicago’s South and West sides also saw some of the most dramatic declines — though, at some, attendance rebounded somewhat last year after dropping off earlier in the pandemic. 

The average attendance rate for Chicago Public Schools stood at about 85% last school year, more than 6 percentage points below the 2018-19 school year, the last before the pandemic upended learning. Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism — the share of students who missed 18 or more days — rose to 45% districtwide last year, compared with 24% on the cusp of the COVID outbreak.  

District officials in Chicago and across the country are making attendance a major focus this school year. That’s because for students whose attendance remains spotty, academic and mental health recovery will be harder to attain. Boosting attendance is especially critical for students of color and low-income students, who were hit the hardest by the pandemic’s disruption. 

Educators and school leaders have said last year — marked by two COVID surges, staffing shortages, and other challenges — tested them like no other. The basic habits of in-person attendance — getting up, getting dressed, and arriving at school on time — took longer to reestablish than expected. Quarantines and other disruptions killed momentum for some students, and regular attendance remained a national issue

In Chicago, officials and others say efforts to increase attendance this fall — from a push to intervene faster when attendance lags to a larger role for student enrichment activities — might be starting to pay off. The district’s overall attendance rate so far this fall stands at just more than 90%, an uptick of about half a percentage point compared with this time last year.  

“Cautious optimism is the overarching theme,” said Robin Koelsch, senior director of partnerships at Communities In Schools, a national educational nonprofit that works with about 200 campuses in Chicago. 

Attendance worse at high schools and South, West Sides

Overall, attendance in Chicago during the fully in-person 2021-22 school year dipped compared with the 2020-21 year, which the district started online before shifting to a hybrid model in the spring. However, comparing in-person and virtual attendance is tricky: Students who logged on to remote classes with their cameras off were not always actively engaged in those lessons.

Schools grappled with how best to track virtual and hybrid attendance. Multicultural Arts High School, where attendance stood at about 85% pre-COVID, saw its rate shoot up to almost 99% in 2020-21, then plummet to 72% last year.  

Last year, district data shows the drops were most pronounced for high school juniors and seniors, whose attendance dipped below 80%. Citywide, charter schools and those serving majority Black student bodies saw steep attendance drops in 2020-21, but didn’t lose much additional ground last year. For campuses serving primarily Latino students, both pandemic school years brought dips in student turnout. 

Some South and West Side neighborhoods hard hit by the pandemic saw dramatic drops in attendance. Austin, South Chicago, and Woodlawn all experienced declines of almost 10 percentage points in 2020-21 — and those lower rates largely persisted last year. South Shore, where average attendance at 11 neighborhood schools dropped by 13 percentage points earlier in the pandemic, saw a significant rebound, though rates remained below where they were before COVID hit. 

Attendance rates and the pandemic’s impact varied widely among campuses. Alternative high schools — whether contract, charter, or district-run — were hit hard. These campuses, which serve high-needs students who previously dropped out or have fallen behind at traditional high schools, generally have lower attendance; amid the pandemic’s upheaval, they saw some of the steepest drops. 

On several Ombudsman and YCCS campuses, the attendance rate for the school year dipped below 50%, and in the case of Ombudsman’s South campus, below 40%.  

Small high schools serving largely Black students on the city’s South and West sides, from Manley to Phillips, were hard hit as well. Phillips, with an attendance rate of about 61%, remains about 20 percentage points below its pre-pandemic rate. Some schools, such as Austin College and Career Academy, Hirsch, and Tilden, also had significant drops, but regained considerable ground last school year. 

The pandemic’s varying impact on different campuses stand out in emerging data, said Elaine Allensworth at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. That schools with comparable student bodies fared so differently raises key questions about what made some campuses better prepared to handle the disruption,

That was an important takeaway in a recent study the consortium released on pandemic-era grading: Elementary schools serving Black students experienced larger declines in grades overall, but ultimately which campus a student attended mattered more than the school’s demographics. 

Allensworth’s team is now looking into the relationship between attendance and grades in 2020-21. It found that attendance — traditionally a key predictor of student achievement — appeared to have an even stronger effect on grades during that year of upheaval. 

“When attendance suddenly drops, and the more you have differences between students, the more you can see that relationship with other indicators of achievement,” Allensworth said. 

District pushes for better attendance

This fall, schools are redoubling their efforts to boost attendance, officials say. 

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools highlighted the work of campus-based Multi-Tiered System of Supports teams, on which educators and administrators parse attendance, grades, and behavior for individual students to steer help to those who need it. The interventionists the district staffed in each school this fall use the data to work one on one or in small groups with students to help them catch up academically. 

The district said it’s also leaning on stepped-up family outreach and expanded after-school programs, including more opportunities for students with disabilities, to help reengage students. A more general emphasis on social-emotional learning, including activities such as healing circles to talk about difficult events, are helping as well, the district statement said. 

As of the 11th week of the school year, the district-wide attendance rate was 90.4%, compared with 90% at this time last year. Officials also touted a 93.4% attendance estimate for the first day of school. 

“While there is much more work to do, we are pleased that the attendance rate is slightly above this time last year,” the district said. 

Campuses are also betting big on the kinds of enrichment opportunities that the pandemic took away from students. Field trips and visits from arts and other community organizations are back this fall — and schools are more thoughtful than ever about tying these opportunities to their instruction, said Koelsch, of Communities In Schools (CIS), an education nonprofit that helps connect campuses with mental health and other community resources. 

For example, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium — one of roughly 250 community partners CIS helps connect with schools — is offering a series of virtual lessons on dolphin and other animal communication, culminating in a visit to the aquarium that lets students get up close to the animals and their caretakers. Those types of programs help build engagement and a sense of connectedness to school and the community at large, Koelsch said.

“Many of our schools are asking for opportunities to get students out of the building,” she said.

Student support managers CIS staffs in some of the schools the nonprofit works with have also started book, art, anime, and other clubs during the school day, giving students a chance to connect with each other based on shared interests. 

“It’s a way for our students to be seen and valued,” said Shipra Panicker, senior director of intensive student supports. 

She added, “Attendance is always a priority for schools, but even more so now.”

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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