Students can’t be expected to learn anything in school unless they attend class. And teachers aren’t teaching class unless they show up at school.
It’s that simple, so it’s no wonder that Superintendent Phil Thornton is making a big deal out of the Rhode Island Department of Education report that breaks down student absenteeism by school, showing the number of chronically absent students – those who missed 10 percent of the 180 days of class, or 18 days – during the 2018-19 academic year.
Chronic teacher absenteeism for the same year – 18 days or more out of class – is also shown by school. The report likewise looks at the level of chronic absenteeism for teacher assistants, principals and administrators.
Oakland Beach School, with 16.4 percent, had the highest level of chronic student absenteeism among elementary schools for 2018-19. Norwood was the best at 7.6 percent. Student absenteeism ran higher in secondary schools, with Winman at 17.2 percent, Vets at 16.9 percent, Toll Gate at 25.9 and Pilgrim 29.9.
The elementary school with the highest teacher absenteeism was Wyman at 24.4 percent. Teacher absenteeism was lowest at Holliman School at 2 percent. Toll Gate was the highest secondary school with 15.3 percent of teachers chronically absent. The secondary school with the lowest teacher absenteeism was Pilgrim at 11.9 percent.
It’s the teacher absenteeism that Thornton zeroed in on during an interview Thursday, noting that in some elementary schools the level of chronic teacher absenteeism is three times that of the students.
Thornton couldn’t identify a single cause for teacher absenteeism that puts Warwick second to only Johnston. Some seemingly off-the-wall reasons teachers suggested included the elimination of regular night custodians, an action that was taken to balance the budget, squirrels in the walls at Pilgrim and the lack of convenient parking. These issues were downplayed by Thornton and Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh.
At the Tuesday School Committee meeting, Netcoh called parking at Toll Gate “atrocious…but I don’t agree it is an excuse.”
“I never cast aspersions on those who say they are sick,” she said.
Thornton holds up two pages ranking all the schools in the state by the level of absenteeism.
“Warwick is predominantly on the first page, and that’s the most chronically absent page in Rhode Island. That’s the whole state, not just the subgroup. We have to look at this. We can’t say it’s squirrels in the wall or parking is an issue…They were raised, but we don’t have any unique circumstance that I can think of that would make us uniquely prone to more sickness,” he said.
The Warwick contract gives teachers 90 sick days, or half the school year.
The superintendent notes that no other district offers 90 days and that typically the number is between 15 and 18 days with a provision allowing teacher to “bank” certain numbers of unused sick days from year to year. The Warwick contract does not have a banking provision.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Netcoh discounted the 90 sick days as a driving factor. Thornton didn’t push it either at the meeting or during the interview, although it is likely to be raised during contract negotiations this year. The current contract expires this coming August.
In a telephone interview Monday, School Committee Chair Karen Bachus said she was “surprised and concerned” by the report.
She didn’t identify the 90 paid sick days as a principal driver of the high level of absenteeism. She noted that because of changes in the pension system, teachers aren’t retiring until they are older and that may be having an impact on absenteeism.
“A lot have put in 35 to 40 years,” she said.
She also pointed to morale in some schools and thought it important to address school culture.
Bachus thought a confidential survey of teachers could be helpful in identifying drivers of absenteeism and measures to address it. Similarly, she suggested a survey of parents to understand what is driving student absenteeism.
So, what’s the purpose of placing the spotlight on absenteeism, especially now?
“I wanted this to start the discussion, not to assign blame, but as any organization or any business, if you have a large segment of your workforce chronically absent, it’s going to affect your performance. Our performance on any measure is in the bottom-third in Rhode Island. That’s just not one reason, either. We’re currently looking at the curricula we’re offering. I put in place a new curriculum for math, K-8, we did science, right? We’re working on high school math now. Along with the curriculum discussions and teacher training, that’s a piece, the most important thing is having the regular teacher in front of the students,” he said.
Thornton is quick to point out many teachers can be counted on to show up day after day. Of the 865 teachers, 312 – or 36 percent – were absent five days or less during the 2018-19 school year. Those considered chronically absent with 18 days or more numbered 100, or 11.6 percent.
Teacher assistants, who number 208, were no better. Thirty-three, or 15.8 percent, were absent five days or less, while 38, or 18.2 percent, were chronically absent.
Bolstering the argument that 90 sick days is not the driving factor for teacher absences, teacher assistants come under the Warwick Independent School Employees, or WISE, contract. Those who work 35 hours a week have 15 paid sick days and are allowed to bank up to 115 days.
Of the department’s 16 administrators, seven, or 43.7 percent, were absent five days or less and two were chronically absent. Of the 29 school principals, 28 were absent five days or less and none were chronically absent.
Thornton is hopeful of having a dialogue on how to maximize student achievement.
“What are the obstacles getting in the way of student success, and this [absenteeism] is one of them. The most important thing you can have is that the teacher is in front of the students on a regular basis. I really want to get past the excuse making, and really have an honest conversation at what’s driving attendance problem,” he said.