“Back to school” had a heavier meaning for New Trier High School this year.
District 203 officials have been tackling record-high absenteeism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first segment of this school year was a significant marker for their strategies.
Winnetka campus Assistant Principal Trish Sheridan shared sparkling data with the School Board on Monday, Nov. 13, that showed chronic absenteeism down about 67 percent — from 24.1 percent to 8.5 percent of students — from the same point one year ago.
Sheridan joked that revealing the data was a “mic drop moment,” but said it is still early in the school year.
“We recognize we are only in the first semester of this plan and we still have a lot to monitor, but these are good trends we are seeing so far,” Sheridan said.
New Trier defines chronic absenteeism as missing school at least 10 percent of the time. That equals 18 days — or two days per month — for an entire school year. Absence data includes both excused and unexcused absences, officials said, adding, however, that the two types of absences are uniquely addressed by school staff. Missing 3-4 class periods counts as a half-day absent, and between 5-10 periods as a full day.
In February, the School Board was presented with data revealing 25.6 percent of students, and 37.9 percent of seniors, were chronically absent. While at the time administrators did not provide data from previous years, Northfield Principal Paul Waechtler said the senior statistic is the highest the school has seen, and Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally said he believes the chronic absenteeism rate was “in the teens” prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Trier swiftly began to address the issue, coming up with a framework for how to reverse the trend and then forming a committee of 18 faculty members to develop and execute the framework.
Sheridan summarized some of the committee’s work during the Nov. 13 meeting. The district published an attendance handbook for students and their parents and increased communications around absences. The school also began to enforce a policy that restricts students from participating in extracurricular activities the day of their absences.
“We have really been able to move attendance to the forefront of conversations with students and families,” she said.
Fifty days into the new school year, chronic absenteeism has shrunk to 8.5 percent, and the number of students in school 95 percent of the time or more has ballooned to 67.1 percent (from 47.3%), according to data Sheridan and her team presented.
New Trier is not alone in the fight against absenteeism. School officials have said that neighboring districts are reporting similar issues, and in October 2022, Chalkbeat — a nonprofit newsroom focusing on education — explored the increase in absenteeism as a national trend.
“I feel so good about these numbers I had to share (with area superintendents),” NTHS Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally said after the Nov. 13 presentation.
School Board members were equally impressed.
Sally Tomlinson called it an “amazing outcome” and said the improved numbers will also benefit teachers who will have fewer make-up lessons to administer.
Kim Alcantara thinks the numbers will get even better once more students enter New Trier with the renewed attendance expectations.
“I think they will only get better as this group of seniors matriculates and it will just be the standard and nothing new,” she said.
Also happy with the numbers, Jean Hahn urged administrators to also maintain systems to address students’ physical and mental health, so they don’t feel they must attend school no matter the circumstances.
Sheridan credited all the district’s stakeholders, from parents and students to teachers and extracurricular sponsors, for the success so far. She added that the district will continue to monitor the data and adjust its strategies to enable continued improvement.
The Record is a nonprofit, nonpartisan community newsroom that relies on reader support to fuel its independent local journalism.
Subscribe to The Record to fund responsible news coverage for your community.
Already a subscriber? You can make a tax-deductible donation at any time.