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CHICAGO — During the final school year when academic recovery remained elusive, Chicago schools continued to struggle with delayed attendance, new data shows.
This fall, they’re making a new push to increase student voter turnout.
School-level data for the 2021-22 school year shows attendance in Chicago continued to decline and remained well below pre-pandemic levels.
The largest declines have occurred in the city’s charter schools and district-run campuses, which have mostly Black student populations. Shrinking high schools on Chicago’s south and west sides have also seen some of the most dramatic declines — although enrollment has partially recovered over the past year after declining earlier in the pandemic.
The average attendance rate for Chicago public schools was about 85 percent in their senior year, more than 6 percentage points below the 2018-19 school year, the last before the pandemic turned learning on its head. Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism — the proportion of students missing 18 days or more — rose to 45 percent nationwide last year, compared with 24 percent at the cusp of the COVID outbreak.
District officials in Chicago and across the country are placing an emphasis on attendance this school year. That’s because for students whose attendance remains patchy, restoring academic and mental health will be more difficult to achieve. The increase in attendance is especially important for students of color and low-income students, who have been hardest hit by the disruption from the pandemic.
Educators and school leaders have said they’ve been tested like no other over the past year – marked by two COVID waves, staff shortages and other challenges. Reestablishing basic in-person habits — getting up, dressing, and showing up to school on time — took longer than expected. Quarantines and other disruptions have sapped momentum for some students, and regular attendance remained a national issue.
In Chicago, officials and others say efforts to increase attendance this fall — from an urge to intervene more quickly when attendance lags behind to a bigger role for student-enrichment activities — could begin to pay off. The district’s overall attendance rate so far this fall is just over 90 percent, up about half a percentage point from this time last year.
“Cautious optimism is the overarching theme,” said Robin Koelsch, senior director of partnerships at Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit educational organization that works with about 200 Chicago campuses.
Attending high schools and South, West Sides worse
Overall attendance in Chicago decreased during the all-in-person 2021-22 school year compared to the 2020-21 school year, which the district began online before transitioning to a hybrid model in the spring. However, the comparison between in-person and virtual attendance is difficult: Students who logged into distance learning with their cameras turned off were not always actively involved in those lessons.
Schools have grappled with how best to track virtual and hybrid attendance. Multicultural Arts High School, which had pre-COVID enrollment at about 85 percent, rose to nearly 99 percent in 2020-21 and then plummeted to 72 percent last year.
Last year district data shows the declines were most pronounced among high school juniors and seniors, whose attendance fell below 80%. Across the city, charter schools and those serving a majority black student body saw a sharp drop in enrollment in 2020-21, but didn’t lose much additional ground over the past year. For campuses that primarily serve Latino students, both pandemic school years have seen dips in student turnout.
Some South and West Side neighborhoods hard-hit by the pandemic have seen a dramatic drop in visitor numbers. Austin, South Chicago and Woodlawn all saw declines of nearly 10 percentage points in 2020-21 — and those lower rates largely held up over the past year. South Shore, where average attendance at 11 neighborhood schools fell 13 percentage points at the start of the pandemic, has seen a significant rebound, though rates have remained below levels they were before the COVID outbreak.
Participation rates and the impact of the pandemic varied widely across campuses. Alternative high schools—whether contract, charter, or district—have been hit hard. These campuses, which serve high-need students who previously dropped out or fell behind in traditional high schools, generally have lower attendance. Amid the upheaval of the pandemic, they saw some of the steepest drops.
At several Ombudsman and YCCS locations, the attendance rate for the school year fell below 50 percent, and in the case of the Ombudsman’s South Campus, below 40 percent.
Small high schools in the south and west of the city, from Manley to Phillips, which serve mostly black students, were also badly affected. Phillips remains about 20 percentage points below his pre-pandemic rate with an attendance rate of about 61 percent. Some schools, like Austin College and Career Academy, Hirsch and Tilden, also had significant declines but were able to regain significant ground over the past school year.
The differential impact of the pandemic on different campuses stands out in new data, said Elaine Allensworth of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. That schools with comparable student numbers have fared so differently raises important questions about what made some colleges better prepared to deal with the disorder.
This was a key finding from a recently published consortium study of grading during the pandemic: Elementary schools serving black students saw larger grade declines overall, but ultimately, which campus a student attended was more important than the school’s demographics.
Allensworth’s team is now investigating the relationship between attendance and grades in 2020-21. It found that attendance — traditionally a key predictor of student performance — seemed to have an even stronger impact on grades in this year of upheaval.
“If attendance suddenly drops and the more disparity there is between students, the better you can see that relationship with other performance indicators,” Allensworth said.
District pushes for better attendance
Schools are doubling down on efforts to increase enrollment this fall, officials say.
In a statement, Chicago Public Schools highlighted the work of campus-based Multi-Tiered System of Supports teams, where educators and administrators analyze attendance, grades and behavior for individual students to direct help to those who need it. The interventionists, who the district staffed at each school this fall, are using the data to work with students individually or in small groups to help them catch up academically.
The district said it also relies on increased outreach to families and expanded after-school programs, including more opportunities for students with disabilities, to get students back engaged. A more general emphasis on social-emotional learning, including activities such as healing circles to talk about difficult events, is also helpful, the district’s statement said.
As of week 11 of the school year, the districtwide attendance rate was 90.4 percent, compared to 90 percent at this point last year. Officials also touted an attendance estimate of 93.4 percent for the first day of school.
“While there is still work to be done, we are pleased that the attendance rate is slightly higher this time last year,” the district said.
Campuses are also betting heavily on the kind of enrichment opportunities the pandemic has robbed students of. Field trips and visits to arts and other community organizations are back in fashion this fall — and schools are thinking more than ever about tying those opportunities into their classroom, said Koelsch of Communities In Schools (CIS), an educational nonprofit that helps connecting the campus to mental health and other community resources.
For example, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago — one of about 250 community partners that CIS is helping to connect with schools — is offering a series of virtual lessons on communicating with dolphins and other animals, culminating in a visit to the aquarium where students can get close to the animals and their caretakers. These types of programs help build engagement and a sense of connection with the school and the community in general, Koelsch said.
“Many of our schools are asking for ways to get students out of the building,” she said.
Student Support Managers CIS staff at some of the schools the nonprofit works with have also formed book, art, anime, and other clubs during the school day to give students a chance to network based on common interests to network with each other.
“It allows our students to be seen and valued,” said Shipra Panicker, Senior Director of Intensive Student Supports.
She added, “Attendance has always been a priority for schools, but now it’s even more so.”
Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter, covering the Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site about educational changes in public schools.