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State school report cards show Franklin County absenteeism is trending down, but only a little

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This year’s state report card data shows stubbornly high chronic absenteeism rates may be trending down slowly.

Chronic absenteeism, or missing 10% of school for any reason, spiked during the pandemic and has remained high.

Most of Franklin County School districts’ chronic absenteeism rates for the 2022-2023 school years dropped about 3% from the year before.

Statewide, it was the same, with rates falling from 30% to about 27%.

Ohio Department of Education Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Woolard called that “great progress.”

"But at the same time, one in four Ohio students were chronically absent last year,” Woolard said. “And if you look at the most vulnerable students, they were much more likely to be chronically absent."

Attendance has been linked to performance levels and graduation rates for students. Missing too much school can affect students’ reading proficiency and career readiness, Woolard said.

Overall, chronic absenteeism remains higher – often much higher – than in years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Statewide, chronic absenteeism was at 11% in the 2019-2020 school year. Franklin County’s average chronic absenteeism that school year was about 15%.

But locally, some districts made big improvements last year: Canal Winchester and South-Western City Schools’ chronic absenteeism rates both dropped almost 10%.

Columbus City Schools’ absenteeism rate last year was about 58% – the highest in Franklin County – but that’s down from 65% the year before, and 75% in the 2020-2021 school year.

And New Albany-Plain Local School District and Upper Arlington City Schools' chronic absenteeism rates were down to about 10% total last year.

Of Franklin County’s public school districts, only Gahanna-Jefferson saw an increase in chronic absenteeism, from 14% in 2021-2022 to 16% last year.

Woolard noted that the Ohio Department of Education’s report cards also tracks student achievement.

“Chronic absence plays such a role in student achievement. But likewise in our achievement data, we improved this year for the second straight year,” Woolard said.

And, like attendance numbers, achievement numbers are better, but not as good as before the pandemic – and not where the state wants them to be.

For example, Woolard said, about 61% of third grade students were proficient in reading last year, which was better than the year before.

“But only 61% of our students are proficient in reading,” he said.

Woolard said the state has invested a lot of federal pandemic relief dollars in improving attendance. In the next month, a state attendance task force that includes experts, nonprofits and school districts across the state is expected to make recommendations on how to further reduce absenteeism.

“Hopefully a year from now, if we're having this conversation, we're continuing to make progress on that. But that's just not going to happen unless people put work in and did pay attention to it,” Woolard said.

Allie Vugrincic is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She comes to Columbus from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, where she was a reporter, features writer and photographer for four years at the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator newspapers.