Boston Public Schools’ ‘chronically absent’ numbers alarms education activists

By Sean Philip Cotter, Boston Herald

Boston Public Schools’ 13,000 students who are chronically absent — 1 in 4 — is a number alarming activists, who say truancy and dropping out puts kids at risk for gangs, exploitation and prison.

“Gangs recruit truant kids — just straight up,” said Emmett Folgert, who runs Dorchester Youth Collaborative.

The rate of “chronically absent” kids districtwide — defined by the state as missing 10% or more of days — also has remained stubbornly high, sitting at around 25% for a decade. Out of the district’s approximately 54,300 kids last year, that’s around 13,000 students.

Nearly a fifth of high-schoolers — more than 3,000 teens — are “off-track,” unlikely to graduate in the usual four-year schedule.

Last year, 5.4% of high-schoolers dropped out, meaning 849 of 16,405. That number was up from 4.4% the previous year, but has trended downward from 7.3% a decade ago, according to BPS data.

Bobby Jenkins, an education activist from Mattapan, said of kids who are truant or dropping out, “These kids, they just go to smoke weed, they go to join gangs.”

Jenkins said he used to work with young women who had left school and were falling through the cracks, and they were at high risk of being sexually exploited.

BPS is upping a door-knocking campaign, which new Superintendent Brenda Cassellius took part in earlier this week. The district plans to do that four times a year. The district is also adding support staff to schools and expanding its Re-Engagement Center, which is meant to help kids who have dropped out.

Hailly Korman, a former teacher who now does research for Bellwether Education Partners, said of kids who drop out, “They’re far more likely to become early parents, they’ll likely increase their reliance on public services over their lifetime, they’re more likely to end up in prison.”

Korman said the eventual early departure from high school is a slow burn that usually started years earlier, and often there’s no big decision to leave.

“I have not met a single kid who’s said that they’ve dropped out of high school — it’s always, ‘Oh, I just stopped going,’ ” Korman said. “Districts that are doing more earlier, doing more from a community schools perspective, are likely to see more success.”

Folgert also said it’s important for a district to work with community organizations to keep kids in school.

“There’s usually a trust that is deeper than between a family and any community organization than with a part of the government — even with a school,” he said.

Also, he added, “there’s no bureaucracy” in trying to get kids what they need. If younger kids are avoiding going to school because they don’t have good basketball sneakers, an organization like his will just buy them.

“It’s the best investment in keeping kids in school you could ever have,” Folgert said.

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