Vaibhav Sharma, Photo Editor

On Monday evening, district officials briefed the Board of Education on the relationship between chronic absenteeism and failing grades, as well as the district’s plans to address these interconnected issues.

Last Wednesday, Michele Sherban, New Haven Public Schools director of research, assessment and evaluation, presented data to a BOE subcommittee that revealed that the number of students that failed five or more classes in the fall quadrupled this year. The next day, Superintendent Iline Tracey told community members at an open forum that the district was looking into the root causes of poor grades and noted that chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days when a student is enrolled, is one of them.

At Monday’s meeting, BOE members heard the district’s plan to address the prevalence of failing grades. Members asked for more context surrounding failing grade data and called for increased parent engagement in discussions about the appropriation of ESSER II funds — federal aid that can be used to address chronic absenteeism and learning loss through additional programming. Tracey reiterated her commitment to engage parents and use ESSER II funds for a “robust” summer school program.

“As long as we keep children at the center of what we are doing, we’ll be okay,” Tracey said at the BOE meeting. “If one child struggles, we all struggle. If one child fails a subject, it’s a failure on all our part.”

Reiterating data she presented to the board’s subcommittee last week, Sherban said that 30 percent of students who failed five or more classes are Hispanic males, while 27 percent of them are African American males. The data also show that 90 percent of NHPS students who failed five or more classes were chronically absent.

Some BOE members wanted more context about the data.

Board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said that while she appreciated Sherban’s work, she would like to see the total number of the 2020-21 student population who failed multiple classes. Darnell Goldson agreed with Jackson-McArthur, saying that Sherban’s presentation should have included this figure. Mayor Justin Elicker inquired about how NHPS data stacks up to numbers from other school districts in the state and the rest of the country.

After Sherban’s presentation, Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin, the district’s chief of youth, family and community engagement, discussed the chronic absenteeism problem, which the district believes is one of the main drivers behind failing grades.

“When we first started digging deep into [chronic absenteeism statistics] in 2014-2015, we were at almost 26 percent [of students],” Joseph-Lumpkin said. She added that after several years of consistent improvement, the district’s rates of chronic absenteeism have again worsened over the last two years.

According to Joseph-Lumpkin’s numbers, the rate of chronic absenteeism currently sits at 33.7 percent — the highest it has ever been since NHPS began to keep track of this statistic six years ago. Joseph-Lumpkin also said that the chronic absenteeism rate is highest among pre-K, kindergarten, first grade and high school students.

In response to the data, Joseph-Lumpkin said that the district is adapting standards from Attendance Works, a national organization that specializes in chronic absenteeism. The organization has offered recommendations — including awareness, family engagement and consistent collection of absenteeism data — to address learning loss exacerbated by the pandemic.

In March 2020, before district schools went remote, NHPS leaders identified some 3,700 students with whom they were most at risk of losing contact. Joseph-Lumpkin said that at this point, the district worked with community partners to get food to families, refer families to emotional and behavioral health services and canvass the homes of chronically absent students to guarantee these students the necessary resources.

The district is currently expanding tutoring and mentoring services for these at-risk students in partnership with the state’s Governor’s Prevention Partnership. The expansion seeks to give students access to online mentoring services “at the touch of a button.”

The Board of Education meets biweekly.

Christian Robles |

Christian Robles was a public editor, city desk editor, and education & youth services beat reporter. He graduated from Yale in 2023 with a degree in Political Science and as an education studies scholar.