To address increasingly high rates of chronic absenteeism among Montgomery County Public Schools students, the district unveiled a much-anticipated action plan Tuesday to improve school attendance. The six-page plan first teased in March includes the implementation of school-specific strategies and the creation of a system-wide promotional campaign.
While the plan does not immediately change any existing grading or attendance policies, school officials say those will be reevaluated as part of its implementation.
Attendance rates were gradually declining prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but have doubled since the return to in-person learning, according to Damon Monteleone, associate superintendent of Well-Being, Learning and Achievement. At a press conference Tuesday, he cited national data identifying one in three students as chronically absent.
Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the new MCPS attendance action plan— called All Together Now: In Schools Together, Learn Together, Achieve Together—represents the school district’s effort to “transform our thinking” when it comes to school attendance.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as 18 or more days absent in a school year “regardless of reason,” equivalent to 10% of the academic calendar. Twenty-seven percent of all 160,554 MCPS students were considered chronically absent last school year, including over 35% of high school students, according to figures included in the action plan—an increase of eight percentage points over the previous year. The official graduation rate is not reported from the state until November, according to MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram.
Data in the plan shows middle school absenteeism increasing from 17% to 22% between last school year and the year prior, while elementary-level absenteeism decreased from 23% to just under 20%. Pre-kindergarten students experienced a consistent absenteeism rate of around 45% over the past two years, data shows. Monteleone said when considering the pre-K figure, it’s important to remember that attendance is not compulsory until kindergarten.
The action plan also includes attendance data specific to lower-income students eligible for Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARMS) and students from racial and ethnic minorities—”focus groups” with consistently higher rates of absenteeism compared with others.
Over 42% of Hispanic FARMS students and over 30% of African American FARMS students were reported chronically absent last year compared with 32% of non-FARMS Hispanic and 18% of non-FARMS African American students last year.
Of non-focus group students, 14.8% were considered absent.
Previously, the school district utilized a loss-of-credit policy that penalized high school students’ grades for missing too many classes. That policy was modified a decade ago in favor of a “softer version,” Monteleone explained, which requires students to be put on an attendance improvement plan if they tallied five or more unexcused absences. However, he said the district has found that process to be “highly variable,” with some schools dolling out attendance improvement plans with greater consistency and others with great reluctance.
“We will be addressing that and talking about that with stakeholders,” he said.
By the close of last school year, 2,262 high school students had been placed on attendance improvement plans out of a pool of over 50,500 students districtwide, according to data received by MoCo360 via a Maryland Public Information Act request.
Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring topped the list with 9% of its 1,721-student population placed on attendance improvement plans, and Burtonsville’s Paint Branch High School was a close second with 8.8% of its 2,135 students on such plans. Among the top 10 schools with the highest rate of students on attendance improvement plans, the FARMS rate averaged 42.56%.
A two-phase approach to improvement
According to Monteleone, the plan consists of a root cause analysis of student absenteeism, school-based improvement measures and district-wide supportive initiatives. This “data-driven, collaborative and multi-faceted” plan is divided into two phases, according to MCPS documents.
The first phase concentrates on planning and analysis, including a review of findings from the antiracist system audit, analyzing absenteeism data, gathering feedback from stakeholders and the subsequent development of “school-specific attendance plans.” Each school’s plan must include four specific elements:
- Regularly scheduled attendance data review sessions for staff
- Identification of specific students in need of support from well-being team
- Collaborative “attendance problem-solving” meetings with students and families
- Summer outreach programs for students marked chronically absent last year, including attendance monitoring plans
Phase one of the plan also requires the school system to “consistently use structures of accountability to monitor progress in order to ensure improved attendance and improved student outcomes,” according to the action plan.
The second phase centers around the design and launch of a system-wide “attendance promotion campaign” targeting younger students and their families. According to the action plan, the new promotional materials, messages and slogans will be designed using input from school counselors, social workers, parent community coordinators and school nurses, among other staff.
No immediate policy changes
When asked whether the plan will update any existing grading or attendance policies, Cram told MoCo360 “anything can be examined” but that the action plan does not dictate any immediate changes. “There is a process governing a policy change,” he said.
All existing grading and attendance reporting policies will be evaluated by a curriculum work group as part of the action plan, Monteleone said during Tuesday’s press conference. In response to a question, he confirmed that this review will include reevaluation of a controversial grading policy known as the “50% rule.”
According to current MCPS guidelines, teachers should view “erring on the side of the student” as their guiding principle in making grading and attendance decisions. This includes honoring a 2006 policy that requires teachers to give students a minimum grade of 50% on a missing or incomplete assignment—a policy that has drawn strong criticism from teachers and students alike who say it disincentivizes students from engaging in their education.
Some parents have already expressed skepticism about how much the new plan will actually improve absenteeism across schools.
“There’s never really any action in their action plans, which is just laughable,” parent Dawn Iannaco-Hahn said of the school system. “We really did used to be a top-tier school system in this country, but MCPS is so hell-bent on keeping that reputation that they don’t realize they’ve put our reputation in the gutter by avoiding all our problems.”
Iannaco-Hahn, who ran for a school board seat in 2022 and has been a consistent, vocal critic of MCPS, is a licensed mental health therapist who lives with her family in Silver Spring. She has a seventh grader attending Farquhar Middle school and a ninth grader at James Hubert Blake High School. Absenteeism has been a problem for many years both in MCPS and beyond, she said, describing the new plan as too little too late.
“If MCPS attacked its problems as they see them coming, rather than letting them build and build until they’re completely out of control, we’d be able to preserve a reputation,” she said.