Gloversville schools struggling with chronic absenteeism

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Gloversville Transit Dept bus drops off 4th grader Josea Ortiz on East Blvd at Boulevard Elementary School in Gloversville on Thursday, March 10, 2022.

The New York state Dept. of Education defines a “chronically absent” student as one with 10 or more absences, and by that measure the Gloversville Enlarged School District has a bigger problem with absenteeism than every other school in Fulton County combined.

“Our chronic absenteeism is staggering,” GESD Superintendent David Halloran told the district’s school board on Monday. “I think people need to realize just how much of a dilemma this is. I don’t know how many people are hearing this properly, but absenteeism in Gloversville is a real, real problem.”

During the 2020-21 school year the district had 714 chronically absent elementary and middle school students, which accounted for 43.4% of the district’s 1,645 kindergarten through 8th graders.

By comparison the other five school districts in Fulton County — Johnstown, Mayfield, Northville, OESJ and Wheelerville — all had a combined 560 chronically absent elementary and middle school students for 2020-21.

“Surrounding school districts do not have absenteeism like we do,” Halloran told the GESD board of education. “This is pretty unique to Gloversville in our region.”

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Data from the New York State Dept. of Education’s school district Report Cards for 2020-21 back up Halloran’s analysis. For the 2020-21 school year Broadalbin-Perth had the second highest number of total chronically absent elementary and middle school students in Fulton County at 202, 19.7% of students in that age range.

The school with the next highest percentage of chronically absent elementary and middle school students was Oppenheim-Ephratah-St.Johnsville Central School which had 118 chronically absent students, 33.2% of the small district’s 205 K-8 students.

Things aren’t any better at the high school level. In 2020-21 GHS had 511 chronically absent students, 71.2% of the district’s total enrolled high school students, by far the highest percentage of chronically absent students of any school in Fulton County.

And the problem hasn’t gotten any better for the 2021-22 school year. Halloran said so far this year:

• 790 GESD students have had 10 or more absences

• 322 GESD students have had between 20-29 absences

* 232 GESD students have more than 30 absences

That’s despite the fact that GESD for the last several years has had a busing partnership with the Gloversville Transit System that probably makes it easier and cheaper for Gloversville students to get to school than nearly any other city school district in New York state.

New York state education law only mandates state transportation cost reimbursement for local school districts for K-8 students who live 2 or more miles from school and for high school students who live more than 3 miles, which leaves most students living in urban areas close to their schools ineligible for door-to-door bus pickup.

The Gloversville district began partnering with the Gloversville Transit System a few years ago and pays approximately $4,000 annually for students, and parents who wish to accompany their children, to get rides on the 18-passenger Gloversville Transit shuttles to school, Halloran said. Recently the Gloversville Transit System began taking the students all the way up the hill to the drop-off area at the high school instead of dropping the students off at the bottom of the hill, he said. He thinks the busing partnership helps, but Gloversville’s problem with chronic absenteeism is far from solved.

“The last few weeks all of the building’s attendance rates have gone back up, but they’re still hovering around 90%, and New York state sets the acceptable threshold for the daily attendance rate at 95% — that’s the acceptable limit of what the daily attendance should be — we reached that, I think, the first day of school, and that’s about it,” Halloran said.

On Wednesday Halloran met with the a special task force he assembled to tackle to brainstorm some solutions about the issue of absenteeism. The meeting included GESD truancy officer James Carter, representatives from the Gloversville Police Department, and officials from county agencies like the Department of Social Services (DSS), probation and members of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors.

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Halloran said Gloversville Police Chief Tony Clay and other government officials told him they believe that the reform of New York state’s juvenile justice system, including the elimination of the state’s juvenile prison system, as well as the “raise the age” law that raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for most crimes has in part led to older students who feel the legal system has become a “paper tiger” that won’t punish them.

JOHN THORPE/THE DAILY GAZETTE

He said in some ways absenteeism is more difficult to deal with among the younger students because in those cases the parents are usually at fault.

“On the elementary level, our argument is that this isn’t up to the kids, their parents and guardians are not valuing education enough,” Halloran said. “Obviously, the approach at the elementary level has been to try to hold families accountable for educational neglect, and once upon a time in New York state educational neglect cases in and of themselves would illicit action on the part of the county, whether it’s DSS, probation, the criminal court, the district attorney’s office, whatever the case may be.”

Halloran said GESD has tried various approaches to curb the absenteeism problem, including partnering with the Free Methodist Church of Gloversville’s “the Loft” after school program at 33 Bleecker St., as well as hiring Lashawn Hawkins and Andy Slezak to work as “family and community educators” working to strengthen the school district’s connections with families and students.

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He said GESD officials have even gone door-to-door a few times a year trying to strategically target as many as 20 families that have been shown to foster chronic absenteeism. In some extreme instances some students would probably be better off placed in group homes than staying in family situations where their parents or guardians create a toxic environment where education is not valued, he said.

But Halloran said sometimes trying to use legal enforcement can backfire on a school district.

“Sometimes the heat comes down, they’re being hot-lined for ed-neglect, (the parent) pulls the kid out, fills out the paperwork to homeschool them,” he said. “The next thing you know (district officials might be) questioning — like I have — the Individual Home Instruction Plans, because it doesn’t look very comprehensive, but the parents have a lot of rights, and the bar is set pretty low in terms of what they have to provide in that regard.”

Halloran said he doesn’t have any specific reform plan he thinks New York state or the county government should use to help curb chronic absenteeism, but he said he will continue to talk about the problem publicly because he believes it directly relates to every other problem students and school districts face in terms of academic performance and graduation rates.

“I don’t have all the answers. I should stay in my lane in some regards, but as the chief educator in this district it is important to not hide our problems, but to eliminate them,” he said. “A problem well-defined is a problem half solved. We know we’ve got a problem. I’m not going to try to hide it. We’re not proud of it. We want to see it improved, because that will mean student’s lives will improve and our community long term, the residents will have more skills and a better work ethic.”

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By Jason Subik

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