Jan 4


Poor attendance fuels low reading scores

Young learners in Buffalo schools miss a lot of class, which helps explain why most of them can’t read at grade level. Problems most acute with Hispanic students.

There’s a reason most younger pupils in Buffalo schools can’t read very well. They aren’t showing up for class.

Only 18 percent of all students last school year had what the district considers a satisfactory attendance rate. That is, they miss school less than roughly one day a month.

More than three times as many students – 61 percent – missed school at least once every other week, according to Buffalo Public Schools attendance data. The district considers that degree of absenteeism chronic or severe.

Educators say absenteeism is taking a toll on the district’s youngest learners, who are struggling to read. 

Of particular concern are Hispanic and Latino students, who have the highest absenteeism rates and lowest reading scores.

Testing from last spring found a growing gap between Hispanics and other students, with less than 30 percent of Hispanics in the earliest grades reading at or above appropriate levels. White students in these grades are now nearly twice as likely as Hispanics to read at grade level.

While language barriers and other issues likely play a role, reading scores generally go down as absenteeism goes up, educators said.

“If you’re not in school, you’re not learning,” said Laura Samulski-Peters, Buffalo schools assistant superintendent in the Office of Shared Accountability. “Every single day you miss, you’re missing the interventions that we’ve put in place in our district to catch those kids up.”

Hispanic rate over 60 percent

Absenteeism has long plagued Buffalo schools, in particular Hispanic and Latino students.

But the pandemic ratcheted absenteeism up to levels current educators haven’t seen before. While numbers are improving since classroom instruction resumed, they remain above pre-pandemic levels.

Attendance rates this past fall among younger pupils—kindergarten through fourth grade—are slightly better than the district as a whole. But they’re still problematic.

In 2019, a year before COVID hit, 40 percent of pupils in the early grades were chronically or severely absent. During the pandemic, and remote learning, that number increased to 61 percent. Last school year it was 56 percent.

The district defines chronic absenteeism as missing an average of one day of school every other week. Severe absenteeism involves missing an average of one day a week.

For Hispanic pupils in the early grades, the severe and chronic absenteeism rate was 69 percent during the 2022-23 school year. That compares with 44 percent of white pupils, 53 percent for Asian and 56 percent for Black students.

“We have not gotten back to the rate that we did have pre-COVID with the number of attendance,” said Aundrea Sanders, the district’s director of crisis prevention and intervention. 

Poverty cited among causes

Fear of infection still drives the high rates of absence in the district, Sanders said. But other factors are at play.

“We can speculate what the barrier may be, but for every family, it can be different,” Sanders said. 

Other leading causes are mental health of students and parents, as well as poverty and housing instability.

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Students from economically disadvantaged families last school year suffered from severe absenteeism more than three times the rate of those from more affluent households. 

Throughout Buffalo, Hispanic families are among the poorest in the city. Their median household income of $28,000 is just over half that of whites, according to Census data.

Nonetheless, answers as to why Hispanic students continue to miss more school than other groups are hard to pin down, according to district officials and community leaders. 

“I don’t know if I have an answer regarding the unique barriers of the Hispanic/Latino community,” Sanders said. “Their reasoning is probably no different than others, just with the housing, with employment and those changes.”

Attendance down, scores down

Reading scores in the early grades dropped along with attendance rates for every race and ethnicity that the district tracks, except Asians, since the school year prior to the pandemic, the Investigative Post analysis found.

While reading scores have mostly rebounded from the pandemic’s impact, large educational gaps persist, experts said.

Just over half of white and Asian kindergarten through fourth graders were reading at grade level last spring, compared with close to 37 percent of Black and less than 28 percent of Hispanic pupils.

The gap between Asian and white students has almost entirely closed since 2019, the analysis found. 

And the gap for Black students is now roughly what it was before the pandemic, about 15 percentage points behind white pupils.

But the gap for Hispanics has grown, from 21 percentage points below whites in 2019, to 25 percentage points by the spring of 2023.

Investigative Post’s analysis is based on Buffalo Public Schools DIBELS literacy data from 2016 through 2023, with data going from kindergarten to fourth grade for all years, and up to sixth grade in some. DIBELS is administered three times a school year to monitor a child’s ability to read. The literacy analysis was cross-referenced with the district’s attendance data.

Economics affect attendance, reading

Poverty plays a large role in attendance and reading ability, according to experts. 

“A lot of this is about opportunity gaps; what students have access to, both outside of school and inside of school,” said Jeff Smink, deputy director of The Education Trust – New York, who focuses on the barriers students face in attaining an equitable education. 

“So much of this is just a resource issue,” Smink said.

Low-income parents may struggle to access out-of-school tutoring or even afford books for their children. Other families may face language barriers. 

In some cases, parents may not know how to read themselves. That has generational, compounding effects to a child’s ability to learn, Smink said. 

“Ninety-five percent of all kids can learn to read if they get the right instruction,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with kids. Socioeconomics or poverty does not prevent them from having the skills to read. It’s just a matter of getting them the tools, the resources, empowering their families.” 

Family engagement is also needed to address absenteeism, experts said.

High school seniors skip the most classes, with reasons ranging from working to help their families, taking care of younger siblings, and disinterest in school, experts said.

Outside of the upper grades, though, the highest rates of severe absenteeism were in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. 

“Kindergarten is always a challenge,” Smink said. 

“A kindergartner’s not consciously getting themselves ready and saying ‘I have to get to school,’” Samulski-Peters said. “We need supports for the family.”

Parents, bogged down by poverty, housing insecurity or other reasons, may feel that the first years of instruction are not important enough to send their children to school each day, Smink said.

But kindergarten is crucial because it’s where the foundations of reading are forged, education experts said.

District responds

District officials said they are reaching out to families to emphasize the importance of school attendance.

“We’re making that extra effort to go to where they are,” Sanders said. “It’s a shared effort [between families and the district] to ensure daily attendance and to make sure that our students value a school and their education.”

Efforts are also ongoing to improve reading scores, with an immediate focus on pupils who started school during the pandemic. Their education was “dramatically impacted by COVID,” said Chief Academic Officer Anne Botticelli.

This past fall, the district set a goal of raising economically disadvantaged third grade reading scores to 39 percent, from 33.

Buffalo Superintendent Tonja Williams speaks at a literacy event. Photo: Garrett Looker.

“Our district has a commitment to improving the literacy rates of our children,” Buffalo Superintendent Tonja Williams said during a recent school board meeting.

Smink applauded Buffalo on a number of fronts, including its implementation of a reading program with heavy emphasis on phonics and decoding words, as well as its tutoring programs. 

“Focusing on the third graders in that subgroup makes sense,” Smink said. 

But the resources Buffalo has directed toward helping students read may never be successful if attendance does not improve, according to educators.

“You could have the best evidence-based instruction in the class, you can hire all the reading coaches in the world,” Smink said. “If the kids aren’t there, they’re not going to learn how to read.”

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