Rhode Island ranks highest in student absenteeism in New England

A recent study shows Rhode leads other New England states in the rates of chronic school absenteeism. (WJAR file photo)

Nationwide, the number of students chronically missing school continues to soar -- and Rhode Island is no exception to the rule.

In newly released numbers from the Rhode Island Department of Education obtained by NBC 10 News, just last school year, more than one-quarter of high school students missed more than 18 days of school. That's more than three weeks of classes students didn't show up for.

Now schools are coming up with creative ways to address those high absentee rates.

Inside the halls of Providence's Central High School, a group of at-risk students meet with their mentors. The mentors encourage students to stay in class by working with them.

"(We ask) 'Which of these students are maybe not make it because they're not coming to school everyday.' And we assign mentors to each one of those students," said Providence School District Superintendent Christopher Maher.

But the mentors also do more than just tutor.

"They make multiple phone calls with parents a week. Talk about why it's important to come to school. Talk about how great the student is doing in school while they're there," said Maher.

But even with all the programs in place, some students are still slipping through the cracks.

Providence schools had a 35% rate of chronic absenteeism last year, according to statistics from RIDE. That's about a third of students who miss nearly three weeks of classes.

In Rhode Island, 12-percent of elementary school students were chronically absent in Rhode Island last year -- that number jumps to 26-percent at the high school level. All those students, missing more than 18 days.

"Chronic absenteeism is known as one of the most stubborn numbers to move, said Maher.

Those numbers are stubborn, despite school programming. At Central High School last year, nearly 60-percent of students were chronically absent. That means more than every-other student enrolled missed about 10,000 minutes of instructional time.

"10,000 minutes you cannot make that up, if you are absent you are going to fall behind," said Maher.

So to keep students from falling behind, school districts, such as Cranston, are teaching students good habits early -- down to the elementary level.

"Begin to have good attendance at the elementary level and understand it so that by the time they get into high school they're going each and every day, said Gladstone Elementary principal Susan Buonanno.

Although truancy can start in grade school, Gladstone Elementary is working on an early intervention.

"Kids will come up in the hallway and say, 'Mrs. Bananno, I've been here all week,'" said Buonanno.

Gladstone Elementary is a school who's attendance rate made a major jump, beating the odds.

"Families of students are realizing it's important for them to be here," said Buonanno.

But that success didn't come easily.

Two years ago, 128 students were chronically absent at their school, missing more than 18 days of class. But in latest attendance count last year, the school brought that number down to 58 students -- which means 70 more students now come to class regularly.

Gladstone Elementary even received an award for the improvement.

"We've done tardy talks, which are bringing kids together that are having difficulty getting to school," said Buonanno.

Along with talks, the elementary school has an attendance task-force to monitor absences and track student data. They also now have monthly assemblies to recognize students who come to class, and some students get extra recess time as a reward.

"September is attendance awareness month. So the second day of school I held a school wide assembly to talk about what we've been doing and how we have to move forward," said Buonanno.

Only the first month of school and the message is clear: set those habits early for attendance, and celebrate each win.

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