Low Graduation Rates Tied To Absenteeism, Poverty In Urban Schools

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For many students in Connecticut, graduating from high school is an expectation. But for many low-income students, it can be a struggle.

According to the state Department of Education, the average 4-year graduation rate for the state for 2016 was 87.4 percent. However, school districts experiencing a higher rate of poverty have a lower graduation rate.

Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury have the highest rates of poverty, in the latest ranking of districts published in 2006 by the state. Those same districts also had among the lowest graduation rates.

Molli DeRosa

Bridgeport was second to highest in terms of poverty and had the lowest graduation rate in 2015-2016. Only 66.5 percent of students graduated from Bridgeport high schools that year. Hartford had a high school graduation rate of 70.7 percent. Even though Waterbury had a higher rate of graduation at 73.3 percent, it is still lower than the Connecticut state average.

Nancy Andrews, director of communications for the Connecticut Education Association, said in an email that these graduation rates are often related to chronic absenteeism.

“Teachers tell us that they have students from single-parent households who often miss school because they have to care for younger siblings while a parent works,” Andrews said.

In contrast, districts with a lower poverty rate, such as South Windsor, had an average graduation rate of 93.7 percent. Towns with an even higher median income, such as Madison, had a 97.7 percent graduation rate.

Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the chief performance officer for the education department, said that graduation rates begin to drop as soon as students begin to miss school.

Although absenteeism leads to a higher likelihood of a teen dropping out, Andrews said it is the job of the teachers to “continue working hard with all students to ensure that they are engaged and have a positive impact and want to stay in school and graduate.”

Chronic absenteeism and low graduation rates are present in low-income areas of Connecticut, especially in the alliance districts. The so-called alliance districts are 30 communities in Connecticut, both suburban and urban, that are given special focus in order to increase student achievement. However, frequent absences and concerns of not graduating exist in areas without as much poverty as well.

“It’s not just about the alliance districts, or the urban districts, or anything like that…It’s all across the state,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Not every person living in poverty will do poorly.”

According to the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, Connecticut has the largest education achievement gap in the United States, meaning wealthier students are assumed to be doing well in school, but lower-income students are assumed to be doing poorly. The council also states on its website that one factor contributing to the achievement gap in schools is the “need for more effective teachers and school leaders.”

However, statistics from the state education department have shown that 98.8 percent or more of teachers in Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven are considered qualified.

Gopalakrishnan said that although there is a correlation between students living in low-income areas with low rates of graduation, there is a lot being done to ensure success of students in all areas of the state, and to combat these lower than average statistics.

Gopalakrishnan said the alliance districts have received roughly $150 million in funding to make improvements. Some of these improvements include hiring literacy coaches, offering pre-kindergarten and providing a free breakfast option in nearly two-thirds of the schools, Gopalakrishnan said.

The achievement gap is still persistent in Connecticut, and students living in poverty are not the only ones who contribute to the lower graduation rates. However, expenditures are being allocated to close this gap and make education a more equal opportunity for every student in Connecticut, regardless of economic standing, state officials said.

Regarding local school systems, Gopalakrishnan said “they’re still not where they should be, but with added investments, we can turn things around.”

Molli DeRosa is a 2017 Windsor High School graduate who will attend Emerson College in the fall.

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