Editorial: Chicago Public Schools’ chronic absenteeism worst of 5 largest districts

Editorial: Chicago Public Schools’ chronic absenteeism worst of 5 largest districts

Chronic absenteeism has been bad across the nation since the pandemic, but in Chicago it’s worse. That hurts students’ futures and the city’s wellbeing.

Chicago Public Schools’ chronic absenteeism problem improved from 2022 to 2023, but only slightly. CPS’s chronic absenteeism is the worst among the country’s largest districts.

In Chicago, 40% of students missed at least 18 days of school last school year. Meaning, kids were skipping school for some reason or another.

The New York Times has rightly shed light on this issue, showing a rapid acceleration of unexcused absences in schools across the country that began during the COVID-19 shutdown, when schools closed for months. In Chicago, many kids were kept out of their physical school buildings for over a year.

“Our relationship with school became optional.” That’s a quote in The Times from Katie Rosanbalm, a psychologist and associate research professor with the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

Also featured in the story is an anecdote about wealthier families who are now likelier to pull kids out of school for ski trips. It’s unlikely the primary driver of chronic absenteeism at CPS is driven by kids hitting the slopes – 76% of CPS students are low-income.  More than 2-in-5 of these low-income students are chronically absent.

Chronic absenteeism has, unsurprisingly, proved detrimental to student educational attainment since 2019. Kids who miss school fall behind. Trends in Chicago’s chronic absenteeism problem track with other data that show academic outcomes declining for too many kids across the city. State data shows about three-quarters of Chicago Public Schools students weren’t reading at grade level, and nearly 83% did not meet proficiency in math.

Kids who are absent at a higher rate are more likely to drop out of school altogether. Kids who drop out are significantly more likely to be in poverty than kids who stay in school.

Absenteeism also leads some kids to get into trouble. Unsurprisingly, as absenteeism rates explode, youth crime is also on the rise in Chicago. Other problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts are also surging – and “reports of depressive symptoms were significantly associated with school absence when investigated as continuous variables,” according to 2020 research.

With all of these problems so readily apparent in the data, one figure that doesn’t make sense is that even though over 40% of Chicago students are chronically absent, graduation rates remain extremely high, at 83%. Promoting students who haven’t mastered critical skills is unfair to those students and sets them up for frustration later in life. Only 30% of all CPS students get their bachelor’s in four years compared to 47% nationally, a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found.

Too many young people are disappearing from school, and it’s hurting them and diminishing their potential. We must find a way to stop this from happening, and the solution needs to include a partnership between parents and guardians, teachers, and the administrators responsible for ensuring the schools are serving students well.

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