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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nashua attendance numbers show high schools below state average

NASHUA – Students at the city’s two public high schools are missing classes at higher rates than the state average, an issue some believe could be mitigated with the addition of a second truancy officer.

Last year, the district’s high school attendance rate was 91.1 percent, or 2.5 percent below the state average.

Superintendent Mark Conrad said the gap is significant and more work must be done to get students in school more often. Conrad addressed the report at a Board of Education meeting last week.

“With conversations on student attendance, it no longer needs to be a K-12 conversation; it’s really how can we address the high schools,” Conrad said.

Some are calling for adding another truancy officer. Currently, there is one truancy officer for all Nashua schools, which total 11,894 students.

Bob Cioppa, director of student services, said adding another truancy officer would have a huge impact.

“With one truant officer for each high school, they would become familiar with kids who are problematic, and it would be much easier to stay on top of them,” he said.

“They have assistant principals work on attendance now, but they have an awful lot on their plate as well.”

Attendance is 93.8 percent districtwide, or about 1 percent below the state average, according to district reports.

The elementary and middle school attendance rates, at 95.6 and 95 percent, respectively, are slightly better than state averages.

“That’s a good statistic, given our student demographics,” Conrad said. “We’ll work to improve upon that, but that reflects a lot of hard work by school administrators and teachers.”

Conrad said the state Legislature’s decision to cut the Children In Need of Services program last year has had an impact on high school attendance.

“It may be that you have a higher proportion of students with high numbers of absences that in past years have been picked up by the CHINS process,” he said. “It’s a resource that’s not there any longer.”

Still, the high school’s truancy woes stretch back eight years in consistent fashion.

In 2003-04, the high school attendance rate was 90.1 percent, compared to a state average of 92.8 percent. The gap closed slightly in following years, but expanded again to nearly 3 percent in 2009-10.

Last year, the high schools combined for 127 students who had 30 or more unexcused absences, while there were only seven such students among all 15 elementary and middle schools.

The problem is noticeable at lower levels of absenteeism, too.

For students with 11 or more unexcused absences last year, the two high schools accounted for two-thirds of the district total, or 512 of the 777 students.

Principal Jennifer Seusing at Nashua High School South said she was surprised by the numbers. In her own tracking, she thought the high schools were closer to the state average attendance rates, but several factors have contributed to the gap.

“Losing truancy court last year was huge,” she said.

It was lost with the CHINS funding, but truancy court returned this year in early March. However, the new state law requires that the school deal only with truant students older than 16.

Seusing said the high schools had made significant progress with freshmen and sophomores before the law, and that not being able to continue that work is “very frustrating.”

An attendance committee of administration and guidance counselors meets regularly at South to talk about solutions to these problems, she said.

“We’ve struggled in K-12 for years with various attendance policies,” Seusing said. “We need some kind of accountability system with backup, to help hold parents accountable for getting their kids here. Having one truancy officer in the district is a challenge.”

That would be T.J. Sheedy, who works at both high schools.

Cioppa said truancy court has been a good preventative measure, but it only reaches a small number of students.

The late start for truancy court this year was because of delays at the state and city level, but it will begin again next year in the fall.

Cioppa said he hopes that by running it all year, truancy court can have a bigger impact.

In the meantime, outreach counselors provide additional support as well, he said.

The counselors talk to excessively truant students at the high schools and find out how they can help, whether a student is pregnant, working too late or has other needs. Pursuing night classes or an enrollment at Clearway High School are popular alternatives, he said.

“(Outreach counselors) find out, ‘If day school is not working for you, what other options might be a good fit for where you are in life right now,’” Cioppa said. “It’s about connecting them with an adult who can try to find an educational fit of what they might need.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Kittle on Twitter (@Telegraph_CamK).