BACK TO SCHOOL AUTHORITY: Hartford schools making sure students stay in class

Hartford schools push to make sure students are in class
Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 5:56 PM EDT
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HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) - Eyewitness News is your back-to-school authority.

We are taking a closer look at the issue of chronic absenteeism.

It has been a problem for Hartford public schools, especially during the pandemic.

As the new school year approaches the district is working on many initiatives to try to help kids stay in the classroom.

August 29 is the first day of school for Hartford Public School students and Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez wants each student to start off the school year on the right foot.

“That one specific message that we’re going to try to drive is ‘every day in school.’ Starting on the first day. We want to start so so strong,” said Torres-Rodriguez.

Last year the attendance numbers weren’t so great. At one point 47-percent of students were chronically absent.

The omicron variant was one factor that drove those numbers up.

“It’s not linear. It’s not one dimensional,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10-percent or more of school days.

In a school year with 180 days, 10-percent is 18 days.

“So we really are trying to go at this at the individual student level, at the grade level, at the school and obviously at the district level,” said Torres-Rodriguez.

Throughout the summer the district has been taking proactive measures to get students excited about coming back to school.

From phone calls to door knocks, various approaches for district staff to develop relationships with families.

“Fresh start this year. Chronically absent last year, here’s a new start. Committed to making sure students and families have what they need. Build those relationships early on. With their peers. With their teachers. And get them connected and excited,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

Last school year the district also began hiring student engagement specialists.

People like Genesis Gulley target the root causes of chronic absenteeism and work with students to help them stay engaged in the classroom.

“As a student engagement specialist, my job is to reengage chronically absent students or even some of our students who may not be chronically absent but are getting there with the amount of absences they have,” said Gulley.

Gulley helps identify what barriers students are facing.

“There are a plethora of reasons that students may be chronically absent. There’s also a large amount of social and environmental things that affect our students. Some of our students are affected by neighborhood violence and that may cause them to be chronically absent,” Gulley said.

Transportation challenges and students taking on jobs and responsibilities at home are also among the causes.

Student engagement specialists help organize monthly attendance incentives. District wide Olympic-like competitions, some even March Madness themed.

“Making sure we are doing a lot of reward-based things. Things that are not so necessarily rooted in punitive punishments.”

District administrators hope these initiatives help raise awareness about chronic absenteeism and students start the school year off strong.

“The longer a student takes to come and join us, the harder it’ll be and the higher the likelihood is to develop a pattern of not showing up to school.”