Buffalo’s abysmal school attendance

Only one-third of students have satisfactory attendance - and that might be an inflated number. Absenteeism a particular problem in high schools. District won't discuss the problem.

Students missing two classes a month is a sign of trouble. 

A lot of students in Buffalo schools are in a world of trouble.

They’re simply not showing up for online classes.

Only one-third of students had satisfactory attendance from the start of the school year until the first week of March, shortly after the district began phasing in classroom instruction. 

Another third of students missed online classes often enough that their frequent absence put their academic achievement at risk — or worse.

The last third were severely absent, meaning they typically missed school at least one day a week, if they participated in class at all. 

“I’m worried about our kids,” Dia Bryant, interim executive director at The Education Trust-NewYork, said after reviewing Buffalo’s attendance data. 

“They’re completely disengaged. And that disengagement, we know, leads to many, many other things like unemployment and not seeking post-secondary opportunities.”

The district’s attendance problems didn’t start with the pandemic. Only 33 percent of students had satisfactory attendance rates during the 2018-19 school year, the last one before the pandemic struck in March 2020. 

While satisfactory attendance is about the same, more students are missing classes more often this school year. Severe absenteeism doubled from 17 percent in 2018-19 to 34 percent through March of this school year.


Comparing attendance rates

Category 2020-21* 2018-19
Satisfactory 34% 33%
At risk 16% 25%
Chronic 17% 25%
Severe 34% 17%
* Through March 5. Percentages do not total 100% because of rounding.
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.

What’s more, the district has relaxed the definition of attendance. Prior to the pandemic, a student had to show up for school to be counted in attendance. This school year, a student only needs to log on to their homeroom in the morning. They are not marked absent if they miss subsequent classes. 

District officials continue to refuse to discuss attendance with Investigative Post. Last summer, officials claimed the district had no attendance figures related to distance learning and refused interview requests, as reported in August. Attendance data does exist, however, and Investigative Post obtained it in March under the state Freedom of Information Law. District officials, through spokesperson Elena Cala, again refused to make anyone available for an interview.

This story is based on an analysis of attendance data and interviews with 16 parents, teachers, other school staff and education experts. Teachers spoke on the condition they were not identified, for fear of retaliation by the district. 

Our analysis found that attendance was lower among Black and Hispanic students. The numbers also show that attendance in high school was appreciably lower than in earlier grades.


Dowdall discusses her story on WBFO, WBEN

WBFO

WBEN


What’s the cause of poor attendance? 

Challenges with technology were often cited. So was trauma associated with the pandemic. Some teachers pointedly said some students simply haven’t wanted to put in the work. And parents and teachers alike took the district to task for what they said is a lack of support.  

“The parents and the teachers that have been on these phone calls since the beginning don’t feel that they’ve been really listened to,” said Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “They’ve been listening to them, but they haven’t been really paying attention and acting on what they’ve been saying.”

A longstanding problem

Students missing school has long been a problem in many urban school districts. The standard for a satisfactory attendance record is missing no more than 5 percent of classes, or one day of school a month. Any more absences put students “at risk” for academic difficulties.  

The U.S. Department of Education labeled chronic absenteeism a “crisis” in schools across the country in 2016. That year, about one in six students nationwide were chronically absent, missing over 15 days of classes in one school year.

“Consistent attendance is critical; young minds must remain active and engaged to be successful,” state education officials told Investigative Post. Chronic absence is associated with low academic achievement, school truancy, dropping out, delinquency and substance abuse. 

Buffalo’s attendance rates in 2018-19, the school year before the pandemic, were worse than the other large upstate urban districts. Its satisfactory attendance rate was the lowest among those districts, while the share of students with chronic or severe problems was second worst.


Comparing large urban districts in 2018-19

District Enrollment Satisfactory At Risk Chronic/Severe
Yonkers 27,421 53% 24% 23%
Syracuse 21,832 39% 24% 37%
Albany 9,966 37% 27% 36%
Rochester 29,481 34% 23% 43%
Buffalo 35,551 33% 26% 42%
Source: Buffalo Board of Education, New York State Department of Education.

Instruction in Buffalo schools this year was entirely virtual until early February. A phase-in of classroom instruction then began and continued through early May, but many students have opted to remain online. Superintendent Kriner Cash said in April that 44 percent of high schoolers and 42 percent of elementary and middle schoolers had opted to continue online instruction. 

“A lot of parents do not want their children back in school,” one teacher told Investigative Post.

Rates vary greatly between schools

The Investigative Post analysis covered attendance from the start of the school year last September through March 5. We found differences in attendance rates by race, grades and, especially, individual schools.

Asian and white students had better attendance than their Black and Hispanic peers. Fifty-two percent of Asian and Pacific students had a satisfactory attendance rate; for whites, it was 49 percent. Rates for Black and Hispanic students were 27 percent and 24 percent, respectively.


Attendance by race

Race Enrollment Satisfactory At risk Chronic Severe
Black 14,144 27% 16% 18% 38%
Hispanic 6,723 24% 16% 19% 41%
White 6,014 49% 14% 13% 24%
Asian, Pacific 3,830 52% 17% 12% 19%
Other 1,450 35% 16% 17% 32%
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.

There were large differences in attendance rates by individual schools.

Attendance was worse at the high school grades, where nearly half — 45 percent — had severe problems. That is, they missed class at least four times a month.

High schools with the best attendance include City Honors, Leonardo da Vinci and Frederick Law Olmsted. At City Honors, 77 percent had a satisfactory attendance rate; only 6 percent were rated severe. 

At the other extreme, the satisfactory attendance rate at East Community High School on Northampton Street was only 9 percent; 70 percent of students had severe attendance problems. Other high schools with poor attendance rates include Grover, Emerson and McKinley.


High school attendance

Grade 9-12 Satisfactory At Risk Chronic Severe
City Honors 76% 12% 7% 6%
Leonardo da Vinci 66% 18% 10% 6%
Frederick Law Olmsted 55% 17% 13% 14%
Middle Early College 49% 17% 17% 16%
ECHC For Children 45% 12% 12% 30%
Occupational Training Center 44% 16% 16% 25%
Performing Arts 43% 18% 19% 19%
Bennett 30% 15% 17% 37%
Hutchinson Central Technical 26% 16% 22% 36%
Riverside 24% 10% 18% 48%
Burgard 22% 13% 18% 47%
Lafayette International 20% 13% 15% 52%
Research Laboratory 19% 7% 7% 67%
Math Science Technology Prep 19% 10% 15% 55%
South Park 19% 11% 17% 53%
International Prep at Grover 16% 11% 15% 58%
Emerson School of Hospitality 16% 17% 21% 46%
McKinley 16% 10% 17% 58%
Culinary Arts & Hospitality 14% 11% 17% 57%
East Community 9% 7% 15% 70%
Pathways Academy @ 198 7% 4% 22% 67%
Pathways Academy @ 205 7% 0% 0% 93%
Pathways Academy @ 307 3% 6% 14% 77%
The Academy Schools 0% 0% 7% 93%
Pathways Academy @ 206 0% 0% 7% 93%
Pathways Academy @ 301 0% 4% 0% 96%
Total 25% 13% 16% 45%
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.

In grades 3-8, schools reporting a satisfactory rate of at least 50 percent include City Honors, Olmsted and Discovery. Those with the most concerning rates include Hillery Park Elementary, Hamlin Park Clapp Academy and Dr. Lydia Wright School.


Attendance in grades 3-8

Grade 3-8 Satisfactory At Risk Chronic Severe
City Honors 77% 10% 6% 7%
Frederick Law Olmsted North 73% 11% 8% 9%
Frederick Law Olmsted 66% 17% 9% 9%
Discovery 60% 16% 12% 12%
Buffalo Academy for Arts 45% 21% 15% 19%
International 39% 20% 17% 24%
Buffalo Public School 81 38% 20% 20% 22%
Arthur O. Eve School 38% 21% 19% 23%
School of Technology 37% 17% 19% 27%
Dr. Antonia Pantoja School of Academic Excellence 37% 15% 20% 28%
ECHC For Children 36% 16% 15% 33%
Waterfront Elementary 33% 19% 20% 28%
Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet 32% 17% 19% 32%
Pfc. W. J. Grabiarz 31% 16% 20% 33%
Early Childhood Center 31% 19% 24% 26%
Stanley M. Makowski 31% 17% 20% 32%
Native American Magnet 31% 22% 18% 29%
Lorraine Elementary 30% 15% 20% 35%
Harriet Ross Tubman 30% 19% 17% 34%
Roosevelt ECC 29% 13% 25% 33%
Bennett Park Montessori 29% 16% 21% 34%
Highgate Heights 29% 22% 22% 28%
Houghton Academy 28% 16% 23% 34%
Community 27% 17% 20% 37%
B.U.I.L.D. 27% 21% 20% 32%
Harvey Austin 26% 18% 21% 34%
West Hertel Academy 26% 15% 22% 37%
Dr G. Blackman 26% 17% 23% 34%
Herman Badillo Bilingual 26% 11% 20% 43%
Bilingual Center 25% 15% 24% 36%
Southside Elementary 25% 18% 21% 36%
Early Childhood Center 25% 19% 21% 35%
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 25% 17% 21% 37%
D’Youville Porter Campus 24% 20% 25% 31%
Lovejoy Discovery 24% 14% 25% 36%
Marva J. Daniel Futures Prep 22% 24% 21% 33%
Dr. Lydia T. Wright 22% 12% 23% 43%
Frank A. Sedita Academy 22% 19% 27% 33%
Math Science Technology 21% 13% 31% 35%
Hamlin Park Clapp Academy 21% 10% 20% 49%
Hillery Park Elementary 20% 16% 25% 38%
The Academy Schools 0% 0% 20% 80%
Total 31% 17% 20% 31%
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.

In the youngest grades, prekindergarten through second, Olmsted, Discovery and North Park Community School had the highest satisfactory attendance rates, all over 50 percent.

Those with the most troubling rates include D’Youville-Porter Campus, Marva J. Daniel Futures Prep and B.U.I.L.D. Community School. 


Attendance for Pre-K through Grade 2

School Satisfactory At Risk Chronic Severe
Frederick Law Olmsted North 62% 16% 11% 11%
Discovery 58% 13% 15% 14%
North Park Community 57% 12% 12% 18%
International 54% 14% 16% 16%
Buffalo Public School 81 52% 14% 12% 23%
Bennett Park Montessori 46% 14% 17% 23%
Buffalo Elementary School of Technology 45% 14% 13% 27%
Dr. Antonia Pantoja 43% 18% 13% 25%
Pfc. W. J. Grabiarz 42% 13% 20% 25%
Houghton Academy 37% 11% 22% 29%
Native American Magnet 35% 19% 17% 29%
Hillery Park 35% 11% 24% 30%
Lorraine Elementary 34% 20% 18% 28%
Stanley M. Makowski E.C.C. 33% 18% 18% 30%
Dr G. Blackman 33% 16% 16% 34%
Highgate Heights 33% 15% 23% 29%
Southside Elementary 32% 15% 21% 32%
Roosevelt ECC 31% 17% 18% 34%
Waterfront Elementary 31% 17% 23% 28%
Harvey Austin 30% 16% 24% 29%
Arthur O. Eve School 26% 17% 23% 35%
Community 25% 16% 22% 36%
Bilingual Center 25% 12% 19% 44%
Dr. C.R.Drew Science Magnet Annex 24% 20% 16% 40%
Lovejoy Discovery 24% 18% 19% 39%
Early Childhood Center 23% 17% 20% 40%
West Hertel Academy 23% 15% 27% 35%
Frank A Sedita Academy 23% 16% 24% 37%
Dr. Lydia T. Wright 21% 13% 26% 39%
Hamlin Park Clapp Academy 21% 15% 23% 41%
Harriet Ross Tubman 20% 16% 24% 40%
B.U.I.L.D. 20% 9% 18% 53%
Herman Badillo Bilingual 19% 17% 23% 41%
Early Childhood Center 19% 19% 23% 40%
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 19% 16% 20% 45%
Marva J. Daniel Futures Prep 17% 11% 24% 48%
D’Youville Porter Campus 17% 15% 20% 49%
ECHC For Children 10% 3% 23% 63%
Total 32% 16% 20% 33%
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.

The numbers beg the question: What explains the low attendance? 

What’s the problem?

Difficulties with technology are cited as a significant cause of absenteeism. Some students live in homes without internet service. Others don’t have access to a computer or must share with parents and siblings. When equipment fails, it’s sometimes difficult to get it repaired.

For other students, and some teachers, software programs can be difficult to grasp. For still others, the online learning environment is a turnoff.

“I feel like I’m putting in a lot of extra work,” one teacher said. “I see why a lot of teachers are getting frustrated and are leaving the profession.”

Others see shortcomings in the district’s approach.

Our Weekly Newsletter

“When you see really high levels, like what you have in Buffalo, I believe it’s because you’re missing key aspects of [foundational support],” said Hedy Chang, executive director and president of Attendance Works, an organization that works to advance student success and help close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence.

“Maybe it’s not a physically healthy learning environment. Maybe you lack access to tech equipment and connectivity. Maybe you don’t have a trauma-informed school,” she said.

In Buffalo’s case, it’s likely a combination of all of the above. 

“I cannot even describe some of the struggles that the kids are going through,” said Matthew Bosque, college and career counselor at Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology. He works with about 40 Buffalo students in an after-school program at the center. 

“Tons of students have had parents sick or had parents or loved ones die of COVID, or are not getting access to health care or are losing their jobs,” Bosque said. “They often have to take the brunt of that and their home life. And normally in the school environment they can escape to school, but when school is at home they can’t escape that environment.”

Teachers acknowledge their students are struggling. One said she babysat the child of a student while they completed missing assignments.

“I have other students that have to stay home and watch nieces, nephews, siblings,” she said. “They’ve had siblings pass away. They’ve had family members pass away.”

“I feel guilty putting more stress on them to get work sometimes,” the teacher said. “But I keep reminding them that their life won’t be easier if they don’t have their high school diploma.”


Support our work with a donation today


Parents said while the district has attempted to provide support for families, they think their efforts have fallen short in some areas.

“These are some pretty significant issues,” said Jessica Bauer-Walker, the parent of two and president of the Community Health Worker Parent Association. “It’s been really disheartening to feel like we’re not in community with the district. It doesn’t feel like we’re all in this together and that we’re working towards the same issues.”

Walker and other parents wrote a letter to the superintendent in April addressing those issues.

“There’s not a real understanding about how to support families and meet students where they’re at to build those relationships and build that community,” Walker said.

Wendy Mistretta, parent and president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, also signed the letter.

“We need to be doing a better job at the health and wellness point of view,” she said. 

To Mistretta, the district is failing in two main areas.

“It really just comes down to restorative practices and trauma-informed care,” she said. “They’re still coming from the academic point of view.” 

While some students are struggling, others just don’t want to do the work, teachers told Investigative Post. 

“Kids are not seeing the seriousness of getting an education at this point,” one high school teacher said.

Changes in grading policy

In response to state edicts, the district put in place several new policies during the pandemic. While allowing flexibility, teachers said these policies make it more difficult to engage students. 

Along with changing the definition of classroom attendance, the district implemented a new grading policy. It gives students “incompletes” in place of failing grades for missing assignments. At the end of each marking period, those students have until the end of the following marking period to submit assignments.

“There’s kids that owe a lot of work. And I think at this point, a lot of them aren’t doing it,” a middle school math teacher at the district said. “They’ve gotten so behind on work it’s too much to make up. There’s no winning solution.”

She was encouraged by an administrator to shorten or combine missing assignments so students behind on work were still able to pass, she said.

“There’s kids that were doing assignments every single day, coming to class every single day and they work their butt off. Now you want me to come up with basically a couple assignments just to pass the student that really wasn’t working that hard?” she said. “It really is quite disappointing, the standards that have been dropped.”

Technology guidelines have lowered expectations for the virtual classroom, as well. Students are not required to turn on their cameras or microphones for class. 

“As soon as the district put it out there, ‘You can’t force kids to put their cameras on.’ I think that’s where we lost a lot,” a middle school math teacher said. 

Other teachers had the same issue.

“Kids don’t turn on their cameras. Sometimes they don’t turn on the microphone,” said a teacher at Bennett High School. “I’ve caught myself trying to make eye contact with the initials in the bubble on my screen.”

“It’s just one of those things where you’re never quite sure how many of the kids in the class are actually paying attention to what you’re doing,” she said.

Teachers used to be able to ensure that students were actually present in online class, even when cameras and microphones were off, and had the freedom to remove students who were faking their attendance. Now they don’t have that authority. The district told teachers they can no longer remove unresponsive students from online instruction.

“They’re on the meeting, they don’t have their cameras on and they’re going back to bed. They’re doing other things,” said the teacher at Bennett.

Lost learning 

Students will suffer the effects of lost learning for years to come, teachers say. 

“I don’t think anybody believes that the amount of not only learning but, especially in the lower grades, the socialization, is anywhere near where it needs to be,” said Rumore. “We have to do something about that. And that’s not going to be cured by summer school.”

Many elementary students will be passed onto the next grade whether they’re prepared or not, teachers said. Many middle and high school students could be expected to make up a year’s worth of learning in a couple months of summer school. Even those who fail and do not complete summer school will be likely passed along, one teacher said. 

“It’s just checking boxes,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of learning lost.” 

“I’m gravely concerned for these students.”