First-day enrollment in Chicago public schools plummeted over last year driven by a stark racial disparity. At schools with majority Black student populations, one third of students on average were absent, according to data released by the school district on Friday.
Overall, about 84% of students logged in on Tuesday for the day of remote learning. That’s down from 94% last fall when school began with in-person classes. The attendance rate climbed to 90% by Thursday, the third day of school.
An analysis by WBEZ identified the pronounced racial disparity. Some 97% of students on average at schools with a relatively large white student population logged on for the first day. But only 70% of students from majority black schools logged on. Excluding alternative and charter schools, attendance ranged from 44% to 100%.
Principal Latasha Geverola said some of the attendance problems were due to technical issues that many families waited to address until the bell rang on the first day. She said many forgot how to log on since the spring or didn’t realize that the Chromebooks distributed by the school didn’t have a hot spot. She said her phone was ringing non-stop.
As the leader of a majority Black school in Austin, she said she is concerned about what these first day figures bode for the future. Usually her school has 90% plus attendance on the first day. This year, it was 76 percent.
“I do worry,” she said. “I can’t manage everything that happens in their homes or in their lives.”
Geverola said she and her staff are already talking about how to keep students, once they show up, to keep coming, including using bitcoins as an incentive.
The school district also is launching a program next week sending security guards to homes of students who are not participating. And though some might think security guards could be threatening, Geverola said students know and are comfortable with the school’s guards. She said she thinks they will respond well to a home visit.
It is also unclear how these attendance numbers relate to overall enrollment. The school district will not release enrollment until after the 20th day of school, but other school districts, including Los Angeles, have seen a drop in the student population this year.
The drop in the first day attendance rate taps into a concern that’s been top of mind since the spring, when remote learning first began because of the pandemic. Many students rarely or never engaged in remote learning, particularly on the city’s South and West sides.
In the spring, at 75% of the city’s traditional public schools, less than half of all students took part in online learning three times a week over an eight-week period, according to CPS data.
CPS officials acknowledged Tuesday’s number isn’t as high as they wanted, but still consider it a victory after strenuous efforts by CPS staff and others all spring and summer to contact families and supply them with computers and internet access. This included a special effort to individual reach out to high-need families, including homeless students and court-involved students.
“The overwhelming majority of our students showed up ready and eager to learn on the first day of school, and I am so proud of our staff and school communities who have been working tirelessly over the summer to ensure families had what they need to log-in on day one,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement. “While our first day attendance rate is lower than in-person school comparisons due to challenges related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I am encouraged by our outreach efforts, which will remain ongoing as we work to ensure families have what they need to participate in remote learning.”
The school district says it distributed 128,000 devices last year and another 32,000 for the fall. In addition, more than 30,000 students have enrolled in Chicago Connected, the city and philanthropic program to provide free high-speed internet access for up to four years.
CPS said outreach efforts to help students to log in and to get them devices will continue.