Scoop: 1 in 4 Hispanic and Black CMS students is chronically absent

Scoop: 1 in 4 Hispanic and Black CMS students is chronically absent

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

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Chronic absenteeism has soared this school year, especially among students of color, an Agenda records request revealed.

  • Hispanic and Black students are five times more likely to be chronically absent than their white counterparts, the records show.

Big picture: Following a racial reckoning over the summer, Superintendent Earnest Winston started the school year with a strong message about fighting systemic racism within CMS, and asked teachers to check their own biases. Despite his call for action, five months into this challenging school year, students of color are falling even further behind. [Go deeper]

  • 25.3% of Hispanic students and 24.4% of Black CMS students are chronically absent, meaning they miss at least 10 percent of days enrolled.
  • That’s way up from last year’s numbers, which were 16.8% for Hispanic students and 16.9% for Black students.
  • 28.7% of EL (English learner) students are chronically absent.

Meanwhile, 5.3% of CMS’ white students are chronically absent. That’s down from 7.7% last school year. The number of chronically absent Asian students has also decreased so far this school year.

State of play: Unsurprisingly, chronic absenteeism demographics line up with failing grades.

  • CMS reports that 32.9% of its students are failing at least one course. Black students, Hispanic students, English learners and students with disabilities had the highest class failure rates.

Of note: The district’s attendance policy has changed during the pandemic and doesn’t require a student’s camera to be on in order to be counted, especially if they engage in other ways. Students can still be counted present if they don’t attend class, but turn in daily assignments.

CMS chronic absenteeism

Comparing 2019-20 and 2020-21 CMS chronic absenteeism. Data: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; Chart: Michelle McGhee/Axios.

Go deeper: The numbers are more staggering when broken down by race and grade. Among middle school EL students, 38.1% are chronically absent. View the full data obtained by the Agenda here.

This year chronic absenteeism is worse among younger students. The district reports that middle schoolers had the highest rates, followed by elementary schoolers, then high schoolers. That’s the inverse of the 2019-20 school year, when older students had the highest rates of absenteeism.

Zoom in: Laura Handler, an adjunct UNC Charlotte professor and former CMS teacher, says the pandemic’s toll on mental health can help explain the rise in chronic absenteeism, plus:

  • An estimated 18,000 CMS students were without hotspots at the beginning of the school year and weren’t able to attend their classes for the first few weeks.
  • Younger students have greater difficulty logging on for virtual classes. CMS teachers have told me some of their older students are responsible for helping younger siblings with school.
  • There’s confusion over when to login, especially among families who don’t speak English at home. For a while elementary students were on a hybrid virtual/in-person schedule, which added to this confusion.

Be smart: Handler stresses the importance of addressing systemic issues from affordable housing to poverty in order to tackle issues like chronic absenteeism at the school level. She tells me, “It’s bigger picture issues that we have to address as a community and not leave to schools to tackle on their own.”


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