ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – How many absences from school are too many? Does it matter if the absences are “excused?” A KRQE News 13 analysis of just-released data shows just how big the absence problem is in Albuquerque.
State law sets the threshold for elementary and high school students at about 18 absences per school year. Students who hit that limit are considered “chronically absent.” And new data from the state’s Public Education Department (PED) shows that 40% of all schools in the Albuquerque Public School (APS) district consider a majority of their student population chronically absent.
In other words, the majority of kids in two out of every five schools in the Albuquerque Public School district missed 18 or more days in the 2020 to 2021 school year. In some schools, up to 80% or 90% of the students were chronically absent.
The absence data includes data from schools operated by APS and charter schools authorized by the district. APS operates 144 schools, while another 32 schools within the district operate as charter schools. According to APS, “charter schools differ from public and magnet schools in that they operate independently from school districts and are held accountable by an entity called an authorizer,” aka the entity they receive their charter from.
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Interactive chart: Schools range widely in the prevalence of chronic absenteeism. Each dot represents a school. Data: PED
The data is the first detailed look at absenteeism in New Mexico since lawmakers passed the Attendance for Success Act. Passed in 2019, the act requires schools to identify and keep track of students at risk of excessive absenteeism. KRQE News 13 made a public records request to access the first year of data, representing 2020 to 2021. Now, the PED has made the data public on its website.
Schools are required to track both excused and unexcused absences. Across the district, the average number of excused absences per student was about seven days per year, according to PED-compiled data. And the district-wide average number of unexcused absences per student was about nine days per year. But some schools far exceed that.
2020-2021 Best and worst attended APS schools by chronic absentee rate
(not including charter, magnet, and alternative schools)
- highest: Del Norte (36.30% chronically absent)
- lowest: Volcano Vista High (12.66% chronically absent)
- highest: Van Buren Middle (34.15% chronically absent)
- lowest: Desert Ridge Middle (3.72% chronically absent)
- highest: Wherry Elementary (91.62% chronically absent)
- lowest: Corrales Elementary (14.94% chronically absent)
Around Albuquerque, both the absolute best attended and absolute worst attended, in terms of chronic absenteeism, were chartered. At the New America School, at an APS authorized charter school, on average, each student had more than 60 unexcused absences, the data shows. Out of 226 enrolled students, more than 200 were chronically absent during the school year. Located in Albuquerque’s South Valley, the charter school had the highest percentage of students marked chronically absent during the pandemic.
“Every school struggled with pandemic attendance in general,” says Wade Randall, the student family engagement administrator at the New America School. “In our school’s mission in particular, we focus on new immigrant students, English language learners, and specifically academically underserved [students].”
With the needs of those particular students in mind, Randall says the school isn’t going to drop any students just because of attendance.
“We’ve always taken an approach of ‘long term’ and not really said, ‘Okay, if you miss 10 days, we’re gonna drop you or put you on probation,'” he explains. “We will consistently and intentionally pursue you to stay engaged.”
“A lot of our students miss more than 10 days a year and fall into that category of chronically absent. But our policy has always been: We won’t drop you and we will consistently pursue re-engagement.”
At the other end of the attendance spectrum, some schools within the district had essentially no chronically absent students during the pandemic. Among those with a chronic absentee rate of less than 1% are East Mountain High School, Cottonwood Classical Prep, Montessori of the Rio Grande, and the Early College Academy (ECA.) Mountain, Cottonwood, and Montessori of the Rio Grande are all APS authorized charter schools, while ECA is considered a magnet school.
“Our attendance rate has been pretty high historically since our school started,” says Trey Smith, the principal at East Mountain High School. “I’d say it’s a testament to our teachers, who were always really taking engaging lesson planning seriously. They just create an environment where our students want to be at school.”
The average student at East Mountain High School had fewer than one unexcused absence during the 2020 to 2021 school year, the attendance data shows. The average student had about one excused absence during the school year. One aspect that might help explain such high attendance rates is the school’s class schedule.
“We’re on a block schedule where we have four classes in the fall and four classes in the spring,” Smith says. “And so there’s actually kind of a built-in incentive. Because they’re 90-minute-long classes, students don’t really want to miss a class. Because they miss a lot of content.”
But a big part of school attendance rates might be explained by parent and student engagement. East Mountain High School, after all, attracts students who aren’t likely to skip many classes.
“Because we’re a charter school — because we’re a school of choice — students and families have to want to go here,” Smith says. “So, we usually get families who are concerned about education, education quality . . . I think the families are committed to just having a good educational experience.”
Monica Armenta, the executive director of communications for APS, told KRQE News 13 that all APS schools have attendance teams to help keep kids on track. Armenta says addressing chronic absenteeism is an ongoing process. Here are some key strategies she highlighted:
- APS partners with Mission Graduate to provide training for all schools on best practices to address chronic absenteeism.
- APS assigns social workers to schools based on chronic absenteeism numbers to determine absences’ core causes and provide support for students and families.
- APS has an attendance unit that provides schools with support and technical assistance to address chronic absenteeism.
- Schools provide interventions to students and families where students are experiencing chronic absenteeism.
She also noted that while magnet schools follow the same attendance programs as APS schools, the district is not involved in creating academic plans for charter schools in the district.