PALMER — During the Feb. 14 School Committee meeting, Pathfinder Tech Superintendent Eric Duda reported an increased daily attendance rate and decrease in chronic absenteeism since the start of the 2023-24 school year, when compared to previous years.

Across Massachusetts, the number of students chronically absent rose significantly during the coronavirus pandemic with rates peaking in 2022 at 22.6% or nearly a quarter or all students in the state, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported.

At Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School District, attendance rates followed a similar pattern, Duda said. In a presentation to the committee, he stated that chronic absenteeism rates at the school jumped from 4.7% in 2021 to 27.4% in 2022. During the same period, daily attendance dropped from 95.9% to 91.8%, he said.

However, the district has seen constant improvement since this drop with chronic absenteeism decreasing to 16% in 2022-23 and to 13.9% as of Jan. 25 of the 2023-24 school year, Duda stated. This aligns with Pathfinder’s School Improvement Plan, which highlighted the goal of lowering absenteeism rates to “20% or lower by June 2024.”

“We’ve communicated to parents, stakeholders, students, class meetings, every way we can both in group sessions, through email communication, through any method we possibly can: Facebook, Instagram, you name it, everything we could do. Just the importance of attendance to try to really embrace the fact that we need them to be team players and assist us in getting their children here,” Duda said, while explaining how the district is working to prevent absenteeism.

He stated that Pathfinder is also working to keep staff and students aware of the attendance policy as well as highlight each person’s responsibility in accordance with the policy.

“We’re all in it together. We can all have an effect on the students whether it’s the staff members here, whether it’s any one of our administrators or whether it’s students helping each other [and] making sure they’re here. A lot of different ways that can happen,” Duda explained. He emphasized that “there was an awful lot of people and an awful lot of time and energy” to create the improvements Pathfinder is seeing in its attendance rates.

Furthermore, the district has taken actions to intervene when students’ attendance declines, such as individual meetings with counselors as well as the addition of a “school adjustment counselor” to assist students with emotional health and professional development to educate staff on engagement strategies, Duda stated.

When asked about how students react to concerns of chronic absenteeism, he said: “The general feedback I’m hearing with the majority of situations is that there are some emotional needs and social interventions that are needed more than anything … it’s not that the student doesn’t want to be here per say but there’s something that’s making it difficult for them to attend.”

Moving forward, the district is also working to help students gain back missed days through recovery programs during February break, April break and on certain Saturdays, Duda said. This was funded through a $10,000 DESE grant that supported staff attendance and student transportation. As of Feb. 14, 57 participants — almost 10% of all Pathfinder students — were signed up for the February break recovery program, he stated.

Pathfinder’s peer tutoring has also expanded to allow students to receive help through Zoom after school hours, in addition to its current in-person tutoring, Duda added.

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