Athol Royalston school officials say absenteeism levels have met state goals ahead of time

Juniors at Athol High School have lunch in the cafeteria. From left are Aspen Therrien, Zander Laprise, Melania Lenoime, Elijah Byron and Dylan Wornham.

Juniors at Athol High School have lunch in the cafeteria. From left are Aspen Therrien, Zander Laprise, Melania Lenoime, Elijah Byron and Dylan Wornham. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Seniors Colby Goodwin and Andru Pope walk down the hall between classes at Athol High School on Friday.

Seniors Colby Goodwin and Andru Pope walk down the hall between classes at Athol High School on Friday.

By Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 01-21-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – In the four years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, absenteeism in schools has hit levels never seen before.

While school districts across the country works to bring these numbers down, Athol Royalston Regional School District officials say they’re ahead of the curve.

According to a report released last October by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the average number of students considered chronically absent – meaning they missed 10% or more of scheduled school days – stood around 22.6% in 2023.

Assistant Superintendent Cynthia Kennedy said the district has met the 2027 goals established by the state. Chronic absenteeism at Athol Community Elementary School has dropped to 21.65%; the level at Athol Royalston Middle School is currently 29.5%; chronic absenteeism at Athol High School has hit 30.6%; and the level at Royalston Community School is presently 15.1%. These numbers represent goals which DESE has established for the district.

In the past year, chronic absenteeism at ACES has dropped 1.1%; ARMS is down 0.2%; the high school has decreased 0.4%; and RCS has dropped 2.9%.

“There’s an old adage,” Kennedy said, “that kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Kids have to have a relationship with their teacher and they have to know their teacher is invested in them as people and as learners. That goes a long way toward kids really wanting to be in school.”

Two weeks ago, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler took to the airwaves for a 30-second public service announcement to stem the “unprecedented” level of chronic absenteeism in the commonwealth’s public schools.

In the announcement, Tutwiler declares “school can be a place to heal and grow, to be with friends, to have the support of a whole team of adults…Let’s work together to make attendance a priority.” The same message is also being carried via billboards throughout the state.

Working to meet the goals

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When it comes to chronic absenteeism in the Athol Royalston Regional School District, Superintendent Matt Ehrenworth said, “To be clear, I don’t know that the news is necessarily good, but it’s definitely trending in the right direction. We’ve been taking the right actions and we are making pretty significant strides.”

Kennedy said, “Every district has chronic absenteeism targets that are part of our accountability status. So, we are, in our district, actively engaging and monitoring those (targets). At least once a month, we take a look at the number of chronic absentee students; that’s one piece. We’re monitoring it at the district level and at the building level.”

Kennedy said all schools in the district respond to every instance of absenteeism, be it chronic or not, in a similar fashion.

“The best case is that a parent calls us and lets the school office know that their child is going to be absent from school,” she explained. “It that does not happen, we have systems in place where we make contact with the homes, just to make sure we have that two-way communication.”

If a student is absent for five days, said Kennedy, “Then our schools physically send a letter home. We may engage the school counselor or our principals or assistant principals might request to have a meeting with the family. We try to tailor these things to meet our families’ needs but, really, what we’re trying to do is twofold: Number one is we want our kids, unless they’re sick or have some other extenuating circumstances, we want them to be in school. And, secondly, it’s incumbent upon us to partner with the families to make sure we are meeting their needs, make sure that if they need some additional support – for example, through our family community centers – we are communicating, or they can communicate with us to get those needs met.”

Ehrenworth said, “Based on your previous attendance rates, your scores, your demographics – that’s how they (the state) set your targets. My guess is, they try to take your current attendance and look at where they expect you to be withing five years, then they just break it down with certain benchmarks.”

The superintendent said the Athol Royalston district is doing its best to meet and, often times, to exceed those targets.

“There’s going to be points,” said Ehrenworth. “For the last couple of years all of the targets DESE had set for our schools, the district has exceeded those targets and improved there attendance even better than DESE had hoped for.”

“We take any of our students’ chronic absenteeism seriously,” said Kennedy, “even if it’s been a recurring trend.”

Ehernworth added that every school building has a Child Study Team made up of counselors, administrators and teachers that will try to determine if individual absences are the result of academic or social problems, a combination of the two, or if they are motivated by other factors.

“We try to reach out to the families and keep them engaged in the process and figure out what steps we can take to improve whatever is going wrong,” he said. “A lot of times, chronic absenteeism is an indicator of other things that are happening within the family and we try to identify how best to support the family to get those kids to school.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.