Mississippi Today: Dr. Thornton Discusses ReImagine Prep’s Chronic Absenteeism Improvement

Pandemic is just one factor in chronic absenteeism

Post-pandemic absenteeism is declining in Mississippi schools, but kids are still missing more school than the pre-COVID days. At many schools, more than a third of all students are missing 18 days a year or more. 

Nationwide, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to mark the point when absenteeism rates in public schools went from bad to worse. The numbers tell the same story in Mississippi. Though the pandemic is a causal factor, educators identified a myriad of reasons — from anxiety to socioeconomic struggles — as to why Mississippi’s public school students seem to be missing more school. 

The Mississippi Department of Education defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% of the school year or more — this works out to roughly two days a month, or 18 days in a year. In the 2022-23 school year, at nearly half of all school districts in Mississippi, 25% or more of the student population was chronically absent. 

“Research says chronic absenteeism could impact students from reaching early learning milestones, can be a predictor for early dropout prior to graduation, and overall poor academic performance,” Armerita Tell, the Mississippi Department of Education’s director of the Office of Compulsory School Attendance and Dropout Prevention, said in an email. “The outcomes are not typical for all children, but the research points to the aforementioned top outcomes.” 

In Mississippi, statewide absenteeism levels peaked in the 2021-2022 school year at 28%. Those numbers fell to 23.9% the following school year, indicating progress. But despite this recovery, those numbers do not come close to pre-COVID years like the 2018-2019 school year, when 13.1% of students were chronically absent. 

Jasmine Thornton serves as managing director of Family and Community Engagement for RePublic Schools, which operates four charter schools in the Jackson area. After ReImagine Prep saw absenteeism rates near 40% after the 2022-23 school year, she spearheaded an effort to understand the reasons for such high rates of absenteeism and to find solutions to combat it. 

One thing that became apparent was the pandemic had exacerbated the challenges that working class families faced in making sure their kids were making it to school. 

“What I noticed is that coming out of COVID — because we serve working class families — a lot of kids became latchkey kids a little earlier,” she said. 

Latchkey kids is a colloquial term to describe students who enter or leave home unaccompanied, most commonly because their parents are at work. ReImagine Prep serves students between fifth and eighth grade. 

“Parents were going to work earlier than kids were going to school. So, we were entrusting that 10-year-olds are responsible enough to get themselves up and get themselves on the bus as well as younger siblings — that’s a lot of responsibility,” she said.

There is a well-established connection between socioeconomic status and chronic absenteeism. ReImagine primarily serves students from economically disadvantaged families. 

Thornton also cited other factors, like reduced enthusiasm among some children for attending school as a result of heightened social anxiety. Because of COVID-19, many students lost the caregivers who would usher them out the door in the morning. 

To address high rates of chronic absenteeism and to try to mitigate the outcomes associated with it, educators and administrators at ReImagine Prep are exploring a myriad of options, like Saturday school. 

“We’ve had to be very creative. We started this whole, ‘You missed instruction? You just don’t get to miss it — you got Saturday school’,” she said. “I’m conducting home visits on chronically absent kids.” 

In those home visits, Thonrnton often learns that food disparities or access to the right clothes can be what keeps kids at home. For kids who miss the bus in the morning, the school will run a second bus, when possible. Though official numbers have not been released, Thornton said ReImagine Prep has reduced chronic absenteeism by about 20%, to nearly 20% in the 2023-24 school year. 

Union Public School District in east central Mississippi served 965 students in the 2022-23 school year. The district saw increases in absenteeism after the pandemic but posted the lowest absenteeism rate in the state in the 2022-23 school year at 10.78%. 

While being a relatively small district helps, Superintendent Tyler Hansford pointed to other factors, like a large number of veteran teachers and strong community ties, that help make such numbers possible in his district.

“If we have a student that’s absent, most of the time, the parents will reach out to the teacher ahead of time and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be out for whatever reason.’ And the teachers make sure that they’re taken care of,” he said. “It’s really just about those relationships that I think our staff members have with our school community and community at large.”

Hansford noted that the district ties attendance to participation in extracurricular activities like sports and other school activities, as a means of incentivizing students to attend. The front offices call families to check in on students who have been absent — more often than not, absences are health related.

Though the pandemic had a significant impact on attendance at Union Public School District, he believes that open communication channels between the school and families was the key to bouncing back so quickly. 

Jerica Thames, principal of Union Middle School, which posted a 6.20% abseteeism rate in the 20-22-23 year, was a teacher during the pandemic. She says that the pandemic had a significant hand in reminding parents in her classroom why it’s important for kids to be in the classroom, after they had to shoulder some of the burden of teaching for a while. 

“That’s when they found a new respect for teachers, because they had to do a lot of teaching at home,” Thames said. “So they knew as well that the best place for their child to be was in the classroom.” 

Statewide, the Mississippi Department of Education is continuing its push for more awareness among both parents and educators regarding the role that absenteeism plays in the success of their students through regularly holding regional training and programming.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.