Highland Park, News

‘We need students in school’: A third of HPHS students chronically absent — an increase that mirrors national trend

Township District 113 officials are searching for answers to address a diminishing statistic:

Student attendance.

Like high schools nationwide, Highland Park and Deerfield high schools are seeing fewer students in the classroom since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. According to data presented at District 113’s Nov. 14 board meeting, 33.5 percent of HPHS students have been chronically absent (missing 10% of school days) in 2023, a leap from 25.2 percent in 2022 and 17.4 percent in 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic.

DHS numbers are also high: 31.6 percent in 2023, up from 21.8 in ’22 and 10.5 in ’19.

“We need students in school. We want them in school to educate them. We think one-third of our students being chronically absent is too many,” said Dr. Michael Lach, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment. “We can’t do this by ourselves. We need help from parents, guardians, moms, dads, aunties. We need students in school.”

Absence data includes both excused and unexcused absences, Lach said, and missing more than half the day counts as an absence. Lach said chronically absent students miss at least 18 school days in a school year and “in a class of 20, two kids are gone on a given day.”

The troubling trend is occurring near and far. In October 2022, Chalkbeat — a nonprofit newsroom focusing on education — explored the increase in absenteeism as a national trend. According to the article, data from the 2020-’21 school year showed a dramatic increase in chronic absenteeism all over the country— up 27 percent in New York City and nearly doubling in the Las Vegas area.

The article cited a pre-pandemic study from the University of Delaware that linked chronic absenteeism to lower academic achievement, school disengagement and other negative outcomes.

More locally, New Trier High School is one of many institutions also combatting chronic absenteeism, which NTHS officials marked at more than 25 percent last school year. New Trier, though, has recorded significant improvement to start the school year. HPHS and DHS have yet to see such improvement, Lach said.

Lach gave an overview of some of the strategies the district has implemented in an attempt to reverse the trend, such as increased conversations with students about tardiness and absenteeism and the prioritization of the issue among working groups. More recently, as of Nov. 18, the district began sending weekly emails containing student attendance data to parents.

“We feel we’re working really hard, so we’re reflecting and trying to brainstorm other things to do, because this is not an OK outcome that we’re getting, so we’re going to keep working on it,” Lach told the School Board.

He also said the district needs cooperation from parents and guardians districtwide in communicating the importance of attending school.

A student liaison to the School Board, Jada Harris, of Deerfield, said students could use more support if and when they do miss class. Additionally, she said, students know when a class session may be worth missing.

“One aspect is once you start to get behind it accumulates and spirals into a bigger issue,” Harris said. “So I think giving more support to students who are chronically absent, more academic support to help get them out of there (is important).

“The other thing is it feels like not every day that every class is worth going to. Students do see that some classes many days are a waste of their time if it’s just busy work or repetitive or just stuff they could do at home. I think that’s the ultimate reason why people think it’s OK to miss (school). It’s not always worth their time from the student perspective to be there.”

The high absenteeism was the primary factor in knocking both District 113 schools off the top level of achievement as measured by the Illinois State Report Card. HPHS and DHS earned a “commendable” designation instead of “exemplary,” the highest mark and one achieved by the top 10 percent of Illinois schools.

This year, 65 high schools were “exemplary,” including nearby Libertyville, Vernon Hills and Lake Forest high schools. High-achieving local schools New Trier and both Glenbrook high schools were also commendable and dinged because of elevated absence rates.

In testing data, taken from 2023 results, District 113 schools showed post-pandemic improvement in English/language arts (62.5% proficiency from 61.8% in 2022) and science (71.7% from 67.9%), but a decline in math (57.1% from 59.5%),

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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