Last year at Lansdowne High School, about 41 percent of students were chronically absent. So far this year, about 36 percent of students are chronically absent.
While Principal Ken Miller is glad to see the number a bit lower this year, he and others at the school admit they still have much work to do to improve attendance rates.
The large number of students chronically absent, which means they’ve missed 10 percent or more of school days, played a significant role in Lansdowne earning just two out of five possible stars in Maryland’s new rating system for schools.
“I was hoping that we would have a better score and, you know, I see that there’s more work to be done,” Miller said.
Nearby Woodlawn High School was similarly knocked on its Maryland State Department of Education School Report Card for having high rates of absenteeism — over 50 percent of students were considered “chronically absent,” in 2017-2018, according to the state.
Catonsville High School reported about 23 percent of students chronically absent in that same year, according to the state. Unlike Woodlawn and Lansdowne high schools, Catonsville High School received four out of five stars in the state ranking.
Some areas of improvement in which Lansdowne High is doing better this year than it has in previous years are not noted in the state’s report, Miller said, and include a steadily increasing graduation rate and growth in PSAT scores.
Data from the 2017 Maryland Report Card show Lansdowne’s graduation rate fluctuating between 2010 and 2016, but generally trending upward. The last year that saw a graduation rate below 80 percent was 2010; since then all years have trended upward.
Part of the reason students may be missing days of school, Miller said, is because they have a class schedule — featuring A days and B days — where they aren’t sitting in the same classrooms every day of the week. So, by missing three days of school, a student ends up missing two days of one class but only one of another, he explained.
“If you think about it, a [school] quarter is 45 days. Ten percent is, what, five days? Let’s think like a teenager,” Miller said. “Five days, does that sound like a lot? Well, that might be, ‘I only missed your class twice, and the other class three times.’”
One strategy to reduce absenteeism at the school is to tackle that mindset head on and remind students that every day in the classroom matters, academically and socially, Miller said. But at Lansdowne and other schools in Baltimore County, not every situation is as straightforward as a student not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.
“There’s unfortunately no one thing, ‘Oh, this is our number one reason why students miss school,’” Miller said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of different issues and challenges our students face.”
Some students might need a part-time job to support their families, others might be dealing with a sudden family crisis, Miller said. When students have a number of absences that catch the school administration’s attention, the school devises a plan on a case-by-case basis to help meet a student’s specific needs.
To assist students and families navigate life’s challenges, Lansdowne High enacted a community school program last school year.
Jill Savage, coordinator of the community school program, said the “whole idea” of the program is to make Lansdowne High School “a hub in the community.”
“The focus is to bring in partners who have programming or services they can offer,” Savage said.
At Lansdowne, those partners include the Maryland Food Bank (for a food pantry and clothing closet in the school ), a Community College of Baltimore County job networking program, First Financial for students to open bank accounts, mental health clinicians for students and families, and more.
Savage said more than 200 families in the Lansdowne community so far have used the services offered as part of the community school program. She said the program can help students overcome barriers that keep them from succeeding academically.
“We’re continuing to grow. We certainly have seen the quickest growth in response to our food pantry and our clothing closet,” she said.
Lansdowne High does not stand alone in the county; other schools have high rates of absenteeism as well. Woodlawn High School, for example, also was penalized in its state rating for its chronic absenteeism.
Missing school can be an issue not just academically, but socially, said Sharone Brinkley-Parker, director of the Baltimore County Public Schools Office of School Climate.
“When students are not in school, we know for all the minutes they miss of instruction it keeps them behind their peers. Socially, there’s some adaptation that has to take place,” she said. “Socially, they are not in the same place as kids their own age.”
And academically, high rates of absenteeism can hurt not just the students missing school, but those in the classroom as well, Brinkley-Parker explained.
If many students are missing instructional hours, the teachers have to spend classroom time going back over material, which effectively takes new instructional time away from students who regularly attend class.
Tackling absenteeism around the county involves working with students on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Intervention starts at the classroom level, where teachers might speak with students who begin to miss school or, in some cases, parents, in order to figure out a root cause.
Each school has an attendance team that will meet to discuss absenteeism among students and develop plans for intervention, Brinkley-Parker said. Sometimes that includes providing additional support, or it might involve home visits to speak with the family, and sometimes that means isetting up plans so students who are at home or in the hospital with an illness can continue instruction outside the classroom.
One of the final steps in the process involves a courtroom-like setting, called Project Attend. Brinkley-Parker said the idea is not to be punitive, but to set up a plan for families to improve a student’s attendance.
Last year, 280 student families were included in intervention services through Project Attend, Brinkley-Parker said.
“We try to reserve it for our most critical cases, not the ones where we already have contact with families,” she said.
Amanda Green, the president of Lansdowne High’s PTSA, said she thinks addressing absenteeism can best be handled by families participating in school life.
“I would say it starts at home,” Green said. “Get involved, see what’s going on, don’t just take [school] for granted.”