Stamford Board of Representatives member Kindrea Walston is hearing a concern from constituents with school-age children.
The kids are skipping class.
Walston, who represents the city’s West Side, a dense, diverse, working-class neighborhood, said a woman in her district is worried about her 16-year-old son, a bright young man who has cut so many classes that he was not promoted with his high school class.
“He missed more than half the school year last year, and this school year he’s doing it again,” Walston said. “He had to go to summer school but he skipped classes there, too. In the morning he goes to school – he’s around the building somewhere – but he doesn’t go to class.”
He’s far from the only Stamford student thumbing a nose at school, Walston said, prompting her to ask about a solution from bygone days.
“Whatever happened to truancy officers?” Walston said. “They would go looking for students. They would let the parent know their child wasn’t in school that day. Parents are busy working two jobs and they don’t find out their child skipped school until the deed is done.”
Students need to know that someone is checking up on them, Walston said.
“Kids don’t fear consequences. There are no consequences,” she said. “What this town needs is four or five truancy officers.”
The Connecticut Department of Education, however, is taking a different direction.
The state is “moving away from criminalizing student behavior,” and away from the term truancy, said Mike Meyer, director of family and community engagement for Stamford Public Schools.
According to the state’s website, a 2017 law “removed truancy and defiance of school rules as reasons that students could be referred to juvenile court.”
The term now is “chronic absenteeism” and it applies when a student misses 10 percent or more of the total number of days they are enrolled in the school year, according to the department’s website.
So in a 180-day year, a student who’s out for 18 days – that’s two days each month – is considered chronically absent. Missed days include excused and unexcused absences, and suspensions. The benchmark is designed to trigger intervention, according to the state education department.
Rather than catching kids in the act of skipping class, educators are focusing on discovering the reasons for the behavior and resolving them, Meyer said. Chronic absenteeism has always been a concern but it grew with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“During the pandemic, students have felt disconnected from school, and more apathetic,” Meyer said. “Things happened that require us now to spend more time figuring out why kids are absent.”
Numbers from the state education department’s data webpage, www.edsight.ct.gov, show how significantly the pandemic affected absenteeism.
In 2019-20 – school shutdowns began in March of that year – 12.2 percent of Connecticut students were chronically absent, according to the data.
The percentage jumped to 19.9 percent in 2020-21, and spiked at 24.9 percent in 2021-22.
So, during the height of the pandemic, about a quarter of Connecticut students were chronically absent from school, including in-person and remote learning days.
Although the data from those days was not entirely accurate because “we didn’t know how to take attendance with remote learning,” Meyer said. “People were taking attendance in multiple ways.”
But the numbers school districts produced for 2020-21, a full pandemic year, show significant disparities in chronic absenteeism between urban and suburban districts – 47.8 percent in Waterbury, for example, and 1.6 percent in Darien.
Now school districts are gathering data on absenteeism more precisely and reporting it to the state monthly, Meyer said.
The data for this school year, which so far covers September and October, shows the absentee rate for Connecticut students was 22.7 percent, a couple of percentage points lower than last year.
It’s still high, Meyer said.
“The trend at the state level is the same as it is in Stamford – there is more chronic absence among English learners, special education students, and kids who are homeless,” Meyer said.
Stamford is having a measure of success with a state strategy that calls for school districts to work with Youth Service Bureaus and other organizations to tackle chronic absenteeism.
Meyer said Stamford has formed partnerships with agencies that include Here to Help, the Stamford Public Education Foundation, the Mayor’s Youth Services Bureau, DOMUS Foundation, Family Centers, and Kids in Crisis.
“This started in the middle of COVID when we realized we had a bunch of families out there who had no idea how to connect with their child’s school,” Meyer said. “Some of the agencies help us do home visits. Some help us with families that need WiFi connections or tutors. Each school has a team to see how absenteeism is trending and to come up with strategies … for identifying economic insecurity, unstable housing situations, mental health issues and other reasons why students aren’t going to school so we can pinpoint what services they need.”
The result has been improvement in attendance among at-risk students, where absenteeism was highest, he said. But there has been a frustrating drop in attendance among students who are not at risk.
“These are kids who are thinking, ‘We didn’t have to go to school for the last two years, so why do we have to go now?’ They’re not feeling connected to school,” Meyer said. “This isn’t just about attendance. It’s about engagement in learning. If these kids don’t see the importance or relevance of going to school, they are less likely to go.”
City Rep. Walston said she understands that solving chronic school absenteeism will require multiple approaches. She said she’s contacted the Stamford Youth Mental Health Alliance, which formed in January 2022 under Stamford Health Director Jody Bishop-Pullan.
The alliance includes more than 20 organizations that work to address the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents, Bishop-Pullan said.
“While the alliance does not address truancy per se, signs like avoiding school or social situations, drug abuse, and acting out in other ways such as fighting may indicate that a student is having mental health challenges,” Bishop-Pullan said. “We know our youth were experiencing mental health issues before the pandemic which have been exacerbated by pandemic-related isolation and anxiety.”
The school district works with the alliance, said Meyer, who acknowledged that some cases of chronic absenteeism may call for truancy officers, which Stamford police, already partners in the effort, may be able to handle.
“Having a truancy officer might be at that tier where, if everything fails, if home visits don’t work, maybe the police department can help,” Meyer said.
Walston said she’d be all for it.
“I think we should at least try it,” Walston said, “because a lot of kids are falling through the cracks.”