The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High-performing Md. school system faces chronic student absenteeism

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith in Silver Spring, Md., in 2018.
Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith in Silver Spring, Md., in 2018. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)
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The well-regarded Montgomery County school system in suburban Maryland posted higher rates of chronic student absenteeism than the national average, and more than 2,000 students have dropped out during the past 2  1 / 2 years.

Newly released county data show that even as Montgomery stands out nationally for its strong academic performance, it faces challenges in keeping students in school.

“What we are hearing and seeing today is not something that we can ignore,” said Board of Education member Karla Silvestre as the panel discussed findings on student attendance and engagement Monday night.

More than 28,000 of the school system’s students were chronically absent in 2015-2016, each missing at least 15 days of school in a year — a number that is on the rise amid enrollment increases, according to the school system’s analysis.

Though chronic absenteeism is a national issue, Montgomery’s rate of 18.5 percent is above the national average of 10 to 15 percent, the report found.

“The issue of student attendance, even in the elementary grades, is pretty alarming,” said Patricia O’Neill, the board’s vice president. “We have a problem in kids attending school.”

O’Neill suggested that the school system’s attendance policy is not working and needs rethinking. She also won board support for a measure that called for a review of policies on academic eligibility for sports and other activities.

Extracurricular activities can keep students invested in school — and work against absenteeism or dropping out, she said. Under current policy, students are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities if they have a grade-point average 2.0 out of 4.0 and no more than one failing grade in the previous marking period.

“We do need to find that one link, one spark, that hopefully will engage a student,” she said.

Data about students who drop out was stark: Two-thirds of the 2,010 students who left school without diplomas since 2017 were Latino, many of them English-language learners. Roughly 19 percent were African American, 10 percent were white, 3 percent were Asian, and 2 percent were multiracial. Forty percent of students were from low-income families.

More Montgomery County students dropped out in ninth and 10th grades than as upper classmen.

“We found out that a lot of students are thinking about dropping out when they are in sixth or seventh grade,” said Alan Goodwin, a retired high school principal who led a committee formed in January to look at the issue.

Several board members also expressed concern about data showing a lack of reading and math proficiency among many students who leave high school before reaching graduation.

“Sometimes, students don’t come to school because they can’t read and they can’t do the work and they feel bad about it,” said board member Jeanette Dixon, who argued that the issue has a lot to do with “getting back to the basics” in literacy and math.

The concerns followed a presentation on why some students frequently miss school or drop out, and what can be done to support and engage them. It was based on work done by Goodwin’s committee.

Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said the questions, ideas and thoughts that emerged from the examination would inform the system’s work. He did not propose action.

A Washington Post story in May found that absenteeism was widespread in Montgomery County high schools. At one high school, for which The Post obtained detailed records, students graduated despite missing as many as 40 or 50 classes in a 90-day semester.

Across the school system, some 1,800 graduates in 2018 missed classes in at least one course 20 times or more in a semester, on an unexcused basis, according to county data analyzed for the Post story.

Can you skip 47 days of English class and still graduate from high school?

During the Monday meeting, Goodwin and others said students are more engaged when they have strong relationships in a school, a sense of belonging and academic purpose, and course work or career pathways that interest them.

Students interviewed as part of the school system’s review said they wanted instruction that feels relevant, more career pathways, teachers to slow down and after-school clubs for socializing, getting homework help and learning to navigate their schools and communities.

Silvestre, the board member, urged that the board take action in the future and not let the issue drift out of focus. She also asked about the system’s attendance policies, which educators say were stricter before a revision about eight years ago.

In response, Smith, the superintendent, suggested the changes had not led to improvements.

“We have been engaged in an analysis of that, and the indication would be that it has not helped our attendance,” he said.

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