Pittsfield Schools superintendent aims to tackle chronic absenteeism

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PITTSFIELD - City schools are rolling out a campaign aimed at reducing the number of students considered chronically absent from classes — considered a significant indicator of long-term behavioral and educational problems.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, in a recent presentation before the School Committee, pointed to the strikingly disparate statistics separating those who "show up" for school and those who are absent more than the 10 percent of class days (18 per year), considered by the state to indicate chronic absenteeism.

Hoping to impress his message upon parents as well as students, McCandless noted that, on average, high absentee levels are associated with drug or alcohol abuse, disciplinary problems, poor grades and with failing to finish high school.

Whenever students are absent, he said, "we can't help them" overcome any educational or other difficulties they are experiencing.

In Pittsfield last year, McCandless said, 12 percent of preschool students were chronically absent, and 15.2 percent of kindergarten students were.

Overall, 15.3 Pittsfield students met the chronically absent threshold in the 2013-14 school year. That included 15 percent of females, 15.6 percent of males; 13.9 percent of white students, 19.4 percent of African American students, and 19.4 percent of Hispanic students, McCandless said.

In addition, he said that the city has five schools performing at the lowest state level on standardized tests, and the percentages there range from 17.7 to 19.6 percent of students chronically absent.

At the two Level One schools here, the rates are 5.3 and 6.3 percent chronically absent.

The average school dropout is then statistically far more likely to serve time in prison, he said, and on average will earn far less over a 40-year work life than a graduate.

Those income disparities, he said, escalate further when the comparison is with community college and career/technical course grads, and especially when compared to four-year college degree-holders.

"I would call it the million dollar difference," McCandless said, referring to what the average college grad earns over 40 years above what the average dropout earns — $1.3 million.

"Do I have to go to school today? It could be a million dollar question," he said.

Among reasons to focus hard on that one aspect of student behavior, the superintendent said, is that 888 of just under 6,000 students in city schools met the chronically absent threshold last year, and "this is an area where we can get results."

The average difference over a work life is $370,000 for a high school grad and $640,400 more for a community college or career/technical grad over what a dropout earns on average.

He called for a communitywide educational campaign and for efforts to determine exactly why students are absent from school. He said there could be a number of factors related to unsettled or unsafe lives at home, or less dramatic issues like having to walk to school on a bitter cold day.

It is vitally important to stem the absentee rates in the earliest grades, he added, when either bad or good attendance habits could carry over into the later grades and into a person's work life.

While the minimum threshold for chronic absenteeism is one day every two weeks, which could seem low, he said that statistically the results show up in more failed courses, more disciplinary actions, more drug or alcohol use and a greater chance of dropping out.

Some students also have significantly higher levels of absenteeism.

McCandless said he wants to collect data on which students are chronically absent, talk to focus groups about the challenges students face in getting to school, educate parents and the public on the importance of regular school attendance, and develop strategies for lowering the absentee rates among the most at-risk students.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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