Bus strike causes student absenteeism

Bus strike causes student absenteeism

(R.I.) More than 160 elementary and middle school students in Rhode Island who normally ride the bus to school were absent for all 11 days of a recent bus driver strike in Providence, according to district officials.

The strike, which lasted from the end of September through the middle of October, stemmed from a labor dispute over pensions between the city bus vendor First Student, Inc. and Teamsters Local 251, which represents the bus drivers.

About 9,000 students had to find alternate transportation to school each day.

Attendance rates in Providence Public Schools tend to fall somewhere in the low 90s for the district’s 24,000 students and a week into the strike, that number overall had fallen only about 5 percent overall.

But, in schools where large numbers of students depend on the bus service, the drop was much more significant.

At Harry Kirzirian Elementary School, for instance, attendance dipped to 77.5 percent on Oct. 1, down from nearly 95 percent on Sept. 26–the day before the strike. Nathan Bishop Middle School had a similar dip in attendance, from about 94 percent prior to the strike, to 79.5 percent at the beginning of October.

And at Carl G. Lauro Elementary, attendance fell from a little more than 92 percent to about 80 percent, while Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary saw a smaller drop, from 95.5 percent attendance the day before the strike to a little more than 86 percent on Oct. 1.

Attendance increased slightly at all four schools as the strike continued, but as many as 165 children missed class every day the drivers were out.

Rhode Island ranks seventh worst in the U.S. for percentage of students who are chronically absent from school, according to a study released earlier this year by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

During the 2015-16 school year, 21 percent students statewide missed 15 or more days of school, according to researchers.

Research has long shown that children who are chronically absent as early as sixth grade are more likely to drop out of school and come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Even in earlier grades, students who are chronically absent are less likely than their peers to be proficient in reading by the third grade–a common benchmark for academic success in later grades.

Chronic absenteeism has emerged as a significant problem in Providence. According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, 3,000 elementary children–nearly 27 percent of students in that age range–were chronically absent during the 2016-17 school year.

In middle school, close to 1,800 students, or 32 percent, missed that much school; as did 3,500 high school students, representing 51 percent of kids grades nine through 12.

The district held a community summit in August about a month before the strike to discuss with students, their families and community stakeholders why children miss school and what can be done to ensure they attend.

Following the bus driver strike, the 165 elementary and middle school students who were absent all 11 days have little wiggle room to miss any days for the rest of the school year before they are considered chronic.

A spokesperson for the district told local reporters that 20 percent of those children hadn’t missed a day of school prior to the strike–meaning 80 percent have already missed at least one school day this year.

District superintendent Christopher Maher has said school officials will reach out to all of the students who missed school during the strike due to transportation issues to help them catch up on the learning time they lost.

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