Home News and Features A Third of MRPS Students are Chronically Absent: Board Reviews Data Report

A Third of MRPS Students are Chronically Absent: Board Reviews Data Report

Main Street Middle School. File photo.
By Linda Berger

The Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Board heard more complaints from parents about literacy instruction, even as it reviewed student data about test scores, behavior, and absenteeism. A winter data report showed that across the board, nearly a third of MRPS students are chronically absent.

Board Chair Jim Murphy reviewed the lockdown response to the Feb. 8 hoax active-shooter threat at Montpelier High School. He praised Superintendent Libby Bonesteel, Principal Jason Gingold, the staff, and the community who all “acted wonderfully.” Murphy thanked Montpelier Police Chief Eric Nordenson and officers Diane Mathews and Mike Philbrick and police officers from Barre, Berlin, and surrounding communities.

Union Elementary School parents expressed dissatisfaction with its literacy instruction. Tim Sinnott said he is “discouraged by the literacy data … (which) is further confirmation of a critical gap … in phonics.” Amanda Garces, former board member and parent of two children at UES, said “the assessments we use do not give us accurate insights. Literacy is not a special education problem alone.” 

After multi-year investments in staff, time, training, and school data software to analyze academic and behavioral support for students, the administration presented two reports of current academic achievement, attendance, and behavior that reflect these investments. 

Bonesteel and Mike Berry, director of curriculum and technology, presented on literacy. Roxbury student scores showed a 20% increase in most areas, but fall and winter literacy data in UES and Main Street Middle School stayed level. High school students are assessed with state-mandated tests, and the results are currently unavailable. Bonesteel discussed parent requests for phonics instruction.

“Phonics is most definitely one” of the many pieces that go into teaching a child to become a skilled reader,” Bonesteel said. “UES and Roxbury both focus on phonics. However, phonics can’t be the only thing we focus on in reading. Teaching kids how to read is a very complicated process, and teachers will always need to be better and need to build their capacity at teaching kids how to read.” 

As a result of community feedback, caregivers of students at UES and MSMS are informed when “Tier-3” intensive individual support is needed. Currently there are two open intervention positions at MSMS.

According to Berry, “We have a pretty assertive plan … to support our educators and our students and our families in literacy instruction and learning.” By the end of the year prioritized standards in reading and writing at all grade levels will be identified, she said.

Board member Emma Bay-Hansen mentioned the frustration she has heard from caregivers because they can’t access their own students’ assessments. Sometimes a child is struggling and caregivers are not “aware of it in time for them to feel that they are able to be responsive.” 

Berry said caregivers must request assessment information in order to receive it. Board vice chair Mia Moore said “teachers don’t know day to day whether or not what they are doing is reaching each kid.” Bonesteel agreed and added that the biggest need in assisting teachers is implementing formative assessment and quick skill checks. 

The Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program, under the direction of Jess Murray, provided data on the 1,256 district students. This included data on hazing, harassment, and bullying (HHB) as well as lack of engagement, physical and verbal aggression, disruption, property destruction, and cheating. There have been 75 behavioral incident referrals at Roxbury Village School, 844 referrals at UES, 505 at MSMS, and 416 at MHS. 

Students on individual education plans, those eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, and males showed a disproportionate number of behavioral incidents. The number of hazing, harassment, and bullying investigations is up over the previous two years, with 34 suspensions having occurred this year. Bonesteel speculated that the new social emotional learning position, new principals, and residual effects of the pandemic on students has added to the uptick. According to Bonesteel, district leaders are responding to community feedback that the district wasn’t “doing what we were supposed to do” regarding bullying.

“Restorative” practices are used in each district school to address behavioral incidents. Murray is developing a tracking system so students receive supports, but Murray is short two staff members at Main Street Middle School, she said. 

Peggy-Sue Van Nostrand, student services director, discussed special education. Consistent staff practices are being implemented to address trust issues with parents. The numbers and evaluation requests for students eligible for special education are relatively stable, she said. Students with intense mental health and behavioral challenges are currently placed in non-district programs, Van Nostrand said, but she is “expanding district capacity” to meet their needs. Van Nostrand has three unstaffed positions. The board requested additional information on special education and services for multilingual learners.

According to Nick Connor, community liaison, 32% of all students — 374 students — were chronically absent (missing 10% or more days of school). He reported that over 37% of students at MHS are chronically absent, 27% at MSMS, 32% at UES, and 37% at Roxbury Village School. About 50% of absences were not from illness. Chronic absenteeism for students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches is 41% and it is 34% for special education. Chronic absenteeism for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students is 32%. Connor estimates his active caseload varies between 30 and 50 students and their families. 

Murphy noted that “A family may be taking a trip and pull their kid out. … the kid doesn’t have a choice, the family is going.” Connor responded, “Sick or not, lost instructional time is happening. I would ask families to sit with that missed time. They can schedule these things in line with school breaks … outside of school time. If you’re not here you’re not having that connectedness and belonging.” 

In other business, board member Aniket Kulkarni is not seeking re-election; “Lyn” Marilyn Turcotte is running for his position. Scott Lewins is running to complete the last year of Amanda Garces three-year term. Jill Remick and Jim Murphy are running to retain their seats. Lyman Castle is running to maintain his seat on the Central Vermont Career Center Board.