Note: This is the first in a series of articles regarding the USD 435 District Learning Update presented to Abilene Board of Education members during the Nov. 11 meeting.
Ninety-five to 96 percent of students enrolled in Abilene Public Schools attend school everyday, but the district has a small group of students who are chronically absent.
Chronic absenteeism is missing 10 percent or more of school days for anything other than school-related trips. That includes excused doctor’s appointments and other reasons.
Repeated absenteeism is a warning sign of academic risk.
“We have a group of 10 to 20 percent who miss regularly,” said Abilene Assistant Superintendent Chris Cooper. “Kennedy (Elementary) and Abilene High School have the highest levels of chronic absenteeism.”
The district’s absentee rate was one of many statistics shared with the USD 435 Board of Education Nov. 11 as part of a District Learning Update.
The report touched on numerous topics including enrollment, social-economic status according to free, reduced or paid lunch, screeners, state assessments, ACT scores, Kindergarten success, graduation rates and post-secondary success.
During the 2018-19 school year, 11.60 percent of Abilene students were chronically absent, which is lower than the statewide rate of chronic absenteeism reported at 13.9 percent.
In 2017-18, 10.75 percent of Abilene students were considered chronically absent, less than the 13.93 percent state rate.
“We’ve just looked at chronic absenteeism in this way the last few years. We used to look at attendance rate,” Cooper said.
Of all USD 435 schools, Abilene High School has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism, coming in at 19.9 percent during the first quarter of the current school year. During spring 2019, the high school had a 19.18 percent chronic absentee rate and in fall semester 2018 the number was 18.71 percent.
Kennedy Primary School, home to the district’s Kindergarten and first graders, recorded 14 percent chronic absenteeism during the first quarter of this school year, 10.58 percent during fall semester 2018 and 10.86 percent in spring 2019.
Board Member Randy Gassman asked if those statistics were typical state averages for the earliest and final years of school.
Cooper said it is difficult to draw a comparison because most school districts have Kindergarten through fifth grade buildings. Abilene, on the other hand, has attendance centers, with Kennedy Primary School serving Kindergarten and first graders.
McKinley Elementary is home to second and third graders, while Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary has the older fourth and fifth grade students.
Kennedy Principal Twyla Sprouse said during the first quarter of the current school year a number of students were pulled out for vacations, deaths in the family or other reasons.
“A parent will also call in when a kiddo gets a cough. You see a lot of that in Kindergarten. It’s their (students) first exposure to the big arena,” Sprouse explained. “And kids get sick a lot.”
Cooper agreed. “If you get the flu you’re in that 10 percent (chronic absentee) range for the whole school year.”
The number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals are considered to be at-risk of not succeeding in school, based on the idea that poverty affects learning.
“Researchers say that free number has a high impact on learning,” Cooper said. “This is pretty typical to what we’ve seen the last several years, but higher than years’ previous.”
A student from a household with an income at a certain percentage below the poverty line is eligible for either a free or reduced lunch, based on federal eligibility guidelines.
“We got up to the 50 percent mark a few years ago and it sits right there,” Cooper said.
For 2019-20, 38 percent of Abilene students qualify for free meals and 13.1 percent get reduced prices.
With 51.10 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches and 10 to 12 percent of Abilene students missing 10 percent of their school days due to chronic absenteeism, it “puts them at significant risk for learning everything they need to learn,” Cooper said.
Fewer students are attending USD 435 than five years ago.
“We’re down 162 kids,” Cooper said.
Enrollment for the current 2019-20 school year is 1,487 compared to 1,649 in 2014-15.
“That’s not unusual for districts like us,” Cooper said. “Most districts look just like Abilene and we’re doing better than some across the state.”
Cooper related that Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson said this is the first year in a long time that Kansas has had the same number of students as last year and “suburban areas still have some areas of growth,” he said.
As for Abilene schools, “We’ve done some projections and we think that (enrollment) will continue for a short time, level out and perhaps come back,” Cooper said, but noted any increased economic development in the area could lead to additional students.
“Lots of conversations are being had so that could turn around quickly,” he concluded.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com.