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Attendance appears to be rebounding in Prince William County schools

May 23, 2023 by Jared Foretek,

Young Prince William County students walk in to Bennett Elementary School in Manassas on the first day of the 2022-23 school year.
Photo by Jared Foretek, InsideNoVa

After a major dip in the second quarter, attendance at Prince William County Schools rebounded following the winter break, returning to previous third-quarter levels.

That was the message from Tim Neall, the division’s director of research and accountability, in his presentation to the Prince William School Board last week.

Concerns rose around the school system after an earlier update showed that 29% of county students missed five or more days in the second quarter of the 2022-2023 school year. But last week, Neall reported that attendance had stabilized during the third quarter, increasing to 93% overall, with 20% missing five or more days. The percentage of students without an absence during the third quarter also rose from 20% to 25%.

“In the second quarter, [daily attendance] was much more volatile, largely due to holidays and … that volatility somewhat reduced in the third quarter,” Neall told the School Board last week.

During the second quarter, 23.5% of county students were considered “chronically absent,” meaning that they’d missed 10% or more of the school year, regardless of whether those absences were excused. That was a significant jump from the 2021-2022 school year over the same period of time, when just 19.4% of students had missed that much time.

But by the third quarter, chronic absenteeism flattened out in county schools, dropping to 18.7% of students, down just slightly from the same period in the prior school year. Though less prevalent than it was months ago, the attendance problem has remained persistent at the high school level, where over a quarter of students continue to meet the Virginia Department of Education definition for chronic absenteeism.

“High school tends to have the highest chronic absenteeism rate,” Neall said. “There has been a decrease from quarter two to quarter three across all levels, but the decrease at the high school level in chronic absenteeism rates is smaller than others. We also see similar patterns of higher chronic absenteeism for our English learners, our special education students and our Hispanic students, and those patterns are consistent with that we saw in prior presentations.”

When the numbers for the second quarter were released, Superintendent LaTanya McDade and others said the school system was upping the level of family outreach for students with attendance issues and building out school-specific plans to get the issue under control.

Last week, Neall said the efforts were ongoing and that the division was continuing to roll out its “Attention to Attendance” program in 54 schools, prioritizing follow-up with families along with “multimedia attendance communication campaigns” and a particular focus on schools with high absences. Prince William County Public Schools includes nearly 100 schools.

“We know that there is a correlation between absenteeism and classroom performance. Stated simply, better attendance is associated with higher grades,” Neall said in March about the issue. “It isn’t just our academic performance that’s critical here, but it’s hard to make a connection and foster a sense of belonging when students aren’t present in school. And we know that that is critical in addressing social-emotional needs.”

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