Credit: Needham Observer

For Needham High School, the days of remote learning and quarantine are long past. Yet something is still missing: a number of students. Like schools in much of the nation, NHS is struggling to return to pre-pandemic attendance rates. Almost 1 in 4 Massachusetts students missed 18 or more days of school in 2022-23, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The department identified 1,300 schools that did not reduce the COVID absence rates by at least half and named them Attendance Priority Schools. Despite a history of excellent attendance, NHS is in that group. 

NHS reported that 25.9% of students missed more than 18 days during the 180-day 2022-2023  academic year. When students miss more than 10% of the school year, they are considered chronically absent by both the state and U.S. departments of education. Education Week reported that 27.8% of students across the nation had chronic attendance problems last year. 

NHS Principal Aaron Sicotte said attendance appears to be trending back toward pre-COVID levels during the first quarter of this academic year. “We continue to have better and better attendance rates across the board, and the number of students we’re concerned about gets lower and lower.” 

With the positive trend, Sicotte said attendance is no longer one of his top concerns. “Students are where they’re supposed to be. They’re in class, and that was not the case while we were coming through COVID.”

Some students apparently no longer thought they’d be tracked upon returning. The 2022-2023 school year was the first complete post-pandemic school year, and attendance had not been strictly monitored during the remote years. “We felt that it was important to put guard rails back up,” said Assistant Principal Alison Coubrough-Argentieri. “It’s been hard to shift the mindset.”

“We try not to be punitive,” she said, “but we want to make sure that the family understands the reality of it. High school attendance is necessary to make progress.”

Of course, school truancy has a long history in the U.S., one that predates COVID, Ferris Bueller or Holden Caulfield. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research reported that in 1898, one in four juveniles incarcerated at the Chicago House of Correction was there for truancy.

NHS has acted more positively to address the consequences of poor attendance, launching a pilot program for receiving credits. Under a traditional attendance system, absences are counted cumulatively for the entire academic year, and students with chronic attendance problems often start losing major amounts of credit early in the year. 

“You could have lost all four of your credits before you’re even in the second quarter,” Sicotte said. “Whether it’s credits or grades, if a student thinks the tunnel is dark, there is no incentive to keep going.”

The pilot program wipes the slate clean at the start of each quarter. “Instead of looking at the whole year and having consequences at the end, we look at each quarter as a distinct time period,” Sicotte said.

For more serious absenteeism, a team including counselors, the assistant principals, teachers, parents and the students themselves meets and strategizes. Sometimes Needham police officer Katie McCullough, who monitors truancy, becomes involved.

Coubrough-Argentieri said a softer approach is always tried first. “Katie might do informal check-ins and find out if the family needs any resources.”

“Today it’s more mental health based. There’s a lot of anxiety and depression. Kids are having trouble physically getting out of bed,” McCullough said. 

In Massachusetts, if a student is absent more than eight times in a semester it may lead to a court filing. “With certain students,” said McCullough, “that’s all they need to hear.” 

She searches for reasons that might keep a student out of school such as food insecurity or a lack of transportation. Among short-term solutions, students have been transported to school in a police cruiser. “Some of them love it,” McCullough said, “and some are embarrassed, and we leave them at the end of the driveway.”

The data for the first quarter has just been compiled, and 40 students — or 2.5% of the high school population — had six absences or more. Coubrough-Argentieri was pleased with the results but pointed out that absenteeism typically increases as the year goes on.

“It’s too early to declare victory,” she said. 

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