Empty Seats: Enrollment and Chronic Absenteeism in Rhode Island Schools

PROVIDENCE, RI – The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) today released a new report analyzing the linked trends of declining enrollment and increased chronic absenteeism. Using newly available data, RIPEC’s report helps explain why there are so many more empty seats in Rhode Island classrooms today than just a few years ago. RIPEC also developed a data dashboard that allows users to compare school districts, charter schools, and demographic subgroups.

Among RIPEC’s findings:

  • Students are choosing to leave public schools, and particularly district schools, in alarming numbers
    • Since 2019, public school enrollment has fallen by over 7,000 (5.2%) and district school enrollment has fallen by over 10,000 (7.9%)
    • Demographic shifts alone do not explain enrollment losses; some students have left the system to pursue other educational opportunities, like homeschooling, and some students have abandoned educational opportunities altogether, as evidenced by a significant increase in the dropout rate
  • The causes and magnitude of enrollment declines vary widely among districts
    • Five districts have lost over 1 in 6 students since 2019: South Kingstown (18.5%), Providence (16.7%), Westerly (16.4%), Narragansett (16.1%), and Jamestown (15.7%)
    • In some communities, enrollment decline is due primarily to demographic change but for urban core districts, enrollment losses have largely been driven by students choosing education options outside of their district schools
  • Rhode Island has a problem with chronic absenteeism that predates the pandemic
    • About 1 in 5 students statewide were chronically absent in Rhode Island in 2018-19
    • Rhode Island had the 4th highest rate of chronic absenteeism of all states in 2015-16; in a 2022-23 survey of 28 states and Washington D.C., it ranked 8th highest
  • The more absences a student accumulates, the worse their outcomes
    • While over 38,000 (28.9%) students missed at least 10% of school days last year, over 12,000 (9.0%) missed at least 20% of school days
  • The gap in chronic absenteeism rates for students from historically disadvantaged subgroups, who already trailed their peers, was made worse by the pandemic in most instances
    • Particularly for economically disadvantaged students, Hispanic students, and multilingual learners—well over 1 in 3 missed at least 10% of school days last year and about 1 in 7 missed at least 20% of school days
  • There’s a wide range in chronic absenteeism among districts that cannot be fully explained by demographic differences, but rather indicate that some have responded more effectively to mitigate the issue than have others
    • Central Falls has the state’s highest proportion of students from historically disadvantaged subgroups but its chronic absenteeism rate in 2022-23 (29.4%) was much lower than that of Providence (48.4%) and Woonsocket (47.2%)
    • Those districts with the largest increases in chronic absenteeism since 2019 include urban core districts like Pawtucket, West Warwick, and Providence, but also urban ring, suburban, and rural districts like New Shoreham, Foster, Middletown, Foster-Glocester, Warwick, Cumberland, and South Kingstown
  • There remain significant gaps in our knowledge base with respect to both enrollment losses and chronic absenteeism, in part due to insufficient data
    • For example, because the state has not compelled private schools to submit enrollment data, we do not know whether this population of students has grown since 2019

“The issue of empty seats was deeply exacerbated by COVID-19, but many students were already opting out of Rhode Island’s public school system before the pandemic—either by seeking an education elsewhere or by failing to regularly attend school,” said Justine Oliva, RIPEC’s Manager of Research. “Critical work has been done to better fill empty seats over the last decade at the state and local level, such as the development of the Student Attendance Leaderboard at RIDE and the establishment of a data-driven home visiting program in Central Falls. There remains a lot of work ahead of us, however, and existing data leaves unanswered key questions that could better inform that work.”

“As policymakers focus on addressing chronic absenteeism, RIPEC encourages them to take stock in the underlying issue of our public education system,” said Michael DiBiase, President and CEO of RIPEC. “The Governor’s Attendance Works RI initiative moves the state in the right direction but in order to have more students to enroll in, and regularly attend, our public schools, we must provide a world-class education that engages students and prepares them for life after high school. Right now, our public school system is too often failing to effectively make the case to students and their families that enrolling in and attending school matters.”

Based on its extensive analysis, RIPEC has the following recommendations:

Recent efforts to raise public awareness and prioritize the reduction of chronic absenteeism should continue to be advanced by the state, to help local leaders deliver and reinforce that message.

The state should invest in programs that work with LEAs to establish and expand local initiatives that reduce rates of chronic absenteeism, including data-driven home visiting programs.

The state should work to improve its enrollment data and better clarify what enrollment losses mean for all Rhode Island children, including those who have left the public education system.

The state should improve the accuracy of chronic absenteeism data by setting a standard definition of attendance and RIDE should seek to improve data collection to better understand why students are chronically absent.

State policymakers should pursue a comprehensive review of the role of Truancy Courts and recommend reforms to the system.

Public education in the state needs to be improved so that students have better reason to enroll in, and regularly attend, school.

You can find an executive summary of the report here.

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