Strong first-day CPS attendance numbers move the school district close to pre-pandemic levels

The district’s Aug. 22 launch marked the earliest in decades. First day attendance is considered important for setting the tone for the year.

WBEZ
Wanda Cornier, a first grade teacher, greets her students on the first day of school at Pickard Elementary in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, on Aug. 22. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Wanda Cornier, a first grade teacher, greets her students on the first day of school at Pickard Elementary in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, on Aug. 22. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Strong first-day CPS attendance numbers move the school district close to pre-pandemic levels

The district’s Aug. 22 launch marked the earliest in decades. First day attendance is considered important for setting the tone for the year.

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Attendance rates at Chicago Public Schools continued their climb back toward pre-pandemic levels as more than 93% of students showed up to classes on the first day of school, the district announced Friday.

Officials are considering the rate an accomplishment after pandemic attendance struggles — and given it’s the earliest start to a CPS school year in modern memory after an unusually short summer. The district credited its summer programs, jobs and other opportunities with keeping families engaged and ready to return on Aug. 22.

“Every day in school matters and we are thrilled to see a higher percentage of students were in class as we started the new year,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement. “Now we must continue to keep students in school where they can continue to learn, grow, and succeed with their classmates.”

Principal Romian Crockett of Chalmers Elementary School in North Lawndale said all students who were expected showed up, giving him a 100% first-day attendance rate. He attributes this to the school district providing a “priority” list of students with low attendance last year. Crockett said he and his “attendance team” personally contacted those families to make sure they knew school started early this year.

They also invited students to a back to school bash the Friday before school started. Crockett said this got students “excited” about school. Some 17,000 families came to these festivals across the city.

“I always tell my teachers that the first day really sets the tone for the school year, and so how we started the year is an indication of how we probably end the year,” Crockett said. He added that he is focused this year on getting students back in the school “habit” after pandemic struggles and to have as few disruptions as possible.

Some students on the attendance rolls did not show up on the first day, Crockett said, but those students are not counted in the attendance rate. The first-day rate includes students in class and those with an excused absence. The “no-shows” are labeled as “Did Not Arrive.” District officials say some come on subsequent days and their label can easily be changed. Others have transferred.

CPS didn’t release attendance data for the rest of the first week or say how many students total were at schools the past two weeks. Officials said they would release this year’s enrollment figures after the 20th day of school, which marks the official numbers for the year. That falls on Sept. 19.

Enrollment in the school district has been on the decline for years, dropping by nearly 74,000 in the last decade. Some researchers are predicting CPS enrollment could drop by as much as 15,000 students this school year.

There had been concern about attendance given the early start. Even as districts statewide moved their start dates earlier into August over the last few decades, Chicago stuck with a post-Labor Day return. Classes started the week before Labor Day last year and two weeks prior this year.

A little over 91% of kids showed up on the first day last year, while 84% logged on to start the 2020-21 school year, the one featuring remote learning during the pandemic. First-day attendance averaged around 94.3% in the four years preceding COVID-19.

CPS said more than 12,400 students identified as needing support enrolled in some form of summer programming. There were also thousands of families at back-to-school bashes citywide, the district said, connecting with their schools for free backpacks, supplies, activities and COVID-19 vaccines and health information.

Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.