Graduates in Pittsburgh schools get dubious marks for attendance

Absenteeism on the rise as graduation nears.

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Nobody ever said it's easy to keep seniors focused on classes as their high school careers near the finish line.

Attendance numbers released by Pittsburgh Public Schools for a period of 20 school days through June 5 show just how challenging that can be.

Seniors were still scheduled to be in school on June 5, and commencement ceremonies were June 7 and 8.

Most schools with seniors showed higher rates of absenteeism for them in the 20-day period than the totals for the full year for seniors or for the entire school.

At Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, known as Sci-Tech, in Oakland, attendance by seniors was such that 98.2 percent of them ended up with records classified as severe absenteeism, chronic absenteeism or at risk.

That's nearly 20 percentage points higher than the Sci-Tech seniors' average of 78.6 percent for the whole year through June 5 and nearly 50 percentage points higher than the year-long average of 49.3 percent for the school as a whole.

Severe absenteeism is for those who missed 20 percent or more, or at least four days in the 20-day period. Chronic refers to 10 percent to 19 percent, which would be two or three days. At risk is 5 percent to 9 percent or one day.

The tally counts both excused and unexcused absences.

In some schools, absences of seniors were high all year long.

At both Carrick High School and Westinghouse 6-12 in Oakland, more than 90 percent of seniors fell into the three categories for the whole school year, with more than 40 percent at each missing 36 days or more in the 2012-13 school year.

Superintendent Linda Lane, who had not reviewed the data, said she would need to talk to principals about the reasons behind the numbers.

"I caution principals about engaging in things that signal to students that the school year is over when it's not. Even with seniors, even though honestly, they're pretty close to finished, I think there is something to be said about finishing, not just quitting. There is a difference," she said.

The released numbers don't show why seniors missed school, but there are end-of-the-year activities, such as the prom and Kennywood Park, that draw some away.

In the case of Sci-Tech, many seniors went on a reward day to Kennywood. That absence alone would have put them in the at-risk category. The tally showed 7.1 percent of seniors in the at-risk category.

An additional day absent would have landed them in the chronic category. There were 48.2 percent of seniors whose absences were classified as chronic.

There were 42.9 percent of seniors in the severe category. For the year, 14.3 percent of Sci-Tech seniors were in the severe category.

Sci-Tech principal Robert Scherrer said there are a number of other reasons a student might be absent, including health issues and finishing up an executive experience in which they work with a business or organization.

Was any of it due to senioritis?

"I think at the end of the senior year, there is a sense of excitement among students that they're graduating, so you might see some patterns that are a little bit different than they are earlier in the school year," he said.

Pittsburgh CAPA, Downtown, which focuses on creative and performing arts, wasn't far behind at 94.7 percent in the three categories combined for the 20-day period, with 40.4 percent of the total number of seniors in the severe category, 34.2 percent chronic and 20.2 percent at risk in the 20-day period. (The category numbers don't precisely equal the total because of rounding.)

This, too, was a spike in the seniors' yearlong average of 84.2 percent in the three categories For the year, 9.6 percent of CAPA's seniors were in the severe category.

The end-of-year numbers also were significantly above CAPA's schoolwide average of 51 percent in the three categories for the school year.

CAPA principal Melissa Pearlman said there are school activities in which students aren't in the building to be counted present first period, including physics day at Kennywood. Students who attended the Thursday night prom could get an excused absence for Friday with a parent note.

She said some seniors were out on college auditions or visits as they make their final decision or may have been ill.

She said there also may be a "little bit of senioritis" at play.

"[Advanced Placement] exams are over. The peak performance season has come to a close. Seniors who have worked extremely hard do see the light at the end of the tunnel and perhaps get a bit lax in their attendance," she said.

Both Sci-Tech and CAPA are among the district's higher performing schools.

School board president Sharene Shealey looked at the pattern this way:

"They all worked hard and are pretty secure in their ability to graduate, and they were being teenagers."

Peter Lavorini, project manager for college and career readiness and a strategic data fellow with the district, said the data would need a deeper look, but sometimes an incentive at the end of the year can boost attendance throughout the year.

"I would hate to tell a senior that has really strong attendance, has worked their butt off for 12 years, that they haven't earned a Kennywood Day," he said.

The issue would be how the days add up over the year, he said.

While it takes four days to be chronically absent in a 20-day period, it would take 18 in the school year to miss at least 10 percent.

Good attendance is needed to be eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships of up to $40,000 for post-secondary education. In addition to a 2.5 grade point average, students must have a 90 percent attendance rate in grades 9-12, with unexcused absences and suspensions counting against them. Excused absences do not count against them.

The smallest percentage of high school seniors with attendance flagged in the 20-day period was 79.6 percent at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, also known as University Prep, in the Hill District. Even so, 55.1 percent of its seniors were in the severe category, 12.2 percent in chronic and 12.2 percent at risk.

Other attendance figures for seniors in the 20-day period through June 5 include:

• Allderdice High, 82.1 percent in all three categories, 32.3 percent severe.

• Brashear High, 88.6 percent in all three categories, 53.1 percent severe.

• Carrick High, 87.3 percent in all three categories, 58.8 percent severe.

• Obama 6-12, 84.8 percent in all three categories, 36.4 percent severe.

• Perry High, 84.1 percent in all three categories, 49.5 percent severe.

• Westinghouse 6-12, 84.4 percent in all three categories, 60.9 percent severe.

The Pittsburgh Online Academy had only one senior.

The figures are based on where students were enrolled when the report was run. The days absent of students who missed school before transferring from one school to another were included in the figures for their final school.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1955 or Twitter @Eleanor_Chute.


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