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Lawrence school administrators discuss chronic absenteeism, behavior approaches in report to board

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Chronic absenteeism has increased in Lawrence Public Schools since the first quarter, data in recent district reports shows; meanwhile, increased behavior incidents in middle schools need tailored approaches, administrators say.

Dr. Cynthia Johnson, executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging, and Dr. Jana Craig-Hare, director of assessment, presented a winter data and equity update alongside some school principals during the school board meeting on Monday.

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Student daily attendance across the district has decreased by 1.6% since the first quarter this year, according to the data. Daily attendance was at 92.5% during the first quarter; during the second quarter, it was at 91%. 

31.6% of all district students are currently showing chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10% or more of school days due to absence for any reason. During the first quarter, 24.7% of students across the district were chronically absent, according to data shared with the board in October. 

The overall percentage of chronically absent students so far this year is slightly lower than last year’s 34.1%, according to the presentation, but that number represented an increase from 23.6% in the 2020-21 school year.

Craig-Hare said individual school principals are working to identify the root causes of attendance issues.

“Principals are also disaggregating this data,” Craig-Hare said during the meeting. “They’re looking at subgroups, they’re looking at grades, they’re looking at genders, they’re looking at all the ways you can slice this. Our data services team actually customized the attendance reports so that it makes it a little bit easier for them to go in and look at this data so they can see who’s gone and then who are these students and what subgroups do they represent.”

Craig-Hare also reviewed during the meeting data on behavior incidents. Although the number of “behavior events and students involved in incidents” decreased at elementary and high schools from the first to second quarter, they increased at middle schools, according to the data. There were 27 more incidents involving middle schoolers during the second quarter than there were during the first.

Craig-Hare said oftentimes these behavior incidents lead to in-school suspensions (ISS) or out-of-school suspensions (OSS). 

The district began adopting a restorative approach to student behavior issues in 2020. The second quarter data revealed restorative practices helped to keep 34% of behavior incidents from resulting in ISS and OSS during the second quarter. Staff used restorative practices in 810 out of 945 behavior instances (85.7%), according to the data. 

Across each of the four middle schools, Southwest Middle School shows the most consistently low numbers of behavior issues, with 44 incidents during the first quarter and 45 incidents during the second quarter. West Middle School had 36 incidents during the first quarter and jumped to 69 incidents during the second quarter.

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Those schools show lower numbers compared to the other two. Billy Mills Middle School had 148 incidents during the first quarter and increased to 229 during the second quarter. Liberty Memorial Central Middle School — the only school to see a decrease — had 296 incidents during the first quarter and dropped to 212 during the second quarter. 

Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood asked Southwest Middle School Principal Carissa Miles why she thinks Southwest has such low numbers in comparison to the other middle schools, and if Southwest’s “positive reinforcement” style that Miles talked about is a driving reason.

“All of our schools are PBS (Positive Behavior Supports) schools, so I can’t speak for my colleagues. I would imagine there is a lot of positive reinforcement at the other buildings,” Miles said during the meeting. “We also have a different student population — our SES (socio-economic status) background’s different.”

Miles said Southwest has team planning time for each grade, where staff discuss student needs and receive student feedback. Board member Kelly Jones acknowledged not all middle schools have that structure.

“My general observation is, as you mentioned, team planning time, and that’s the second team planning time and some of your success is absolutely tied to the fact that you have a sixth grade team, a seventh grade team and an eighth grade team, and what we heard in negotiations is not all of our middle schools have that, so that’s an equity issue in and of itself,” Jones said during the meeting. “How we continue to provide that experience or account for it next year if we don’t have it is the thing that I’m taking away from this conversation, and I appreciate you raising it.”

Becca Craft, Monday’s student board member and Free State junior, asked what support was being provided to address the middle school disparity. 

“I think one thing we consider when looking at this data and working with principals is that behavior is the language — that there’s something that our scholars may not be getting or something that they’re missing or some additional support that they need,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said during the meeting. “So when talking with our principals, they’re able to drill down to if it’s 200 infractions, they could tell you that ‘I have a third of my students that may be contributing to a majority of these.’”

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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