School districts across Louisiana saw truancy rates spike during the 2020-2021 school year, data from the Louisiana Department of Education shows, though the Lafayette Parish School System did not see the same dramatic increase.
More than four of every 10 students in the state was considered to be truant during the 2020-2021 school year, which typically means a student has more than five unexcused absences in a semester. Generally, these students are at greater risk of not graduating high school.
With the disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic within schools — as well as in workplaces, communities and homes — only nine of the 70 school districts across the state did not see their truancy rates increase. More than half saw their rates increase by 10 percentage points or more.
Lafayette Parish's truancy rate did increase, but it was slight compared to most of the other school districts in the state. In the previous school year — which ended early due to the onset of the pandemic — LPSS had the 21st highest-truancy rates in the state and the third-highest in Acadiana.
During the 2020-2021 school year, LPSS had the 26th lowest rate in the state and the third lowest in Acadiana.
Lafayette had truancy problems pre-COVID
During the 2019-2020 school year, the truancy rate for LPSS students was around 32%, meaning more than three of every 10 students was considered to be truant. The state average for the same year was 28.2%, and the average for the eight-parish Acadiana region was 29.5%.
Truancy is not a new issue in Lafayette Parish, though the situation has improved dramatically over the last few years. Prior to the 2020-2021 school year, LPSS had not been below the state average since 2016-2017, when LPSS had a rate of 28.1% compared to 32.9% statewide.
The parish's truancy rate nearly doubled during the 2017-2018 school year, however, with more than half of LPSS students having at least five unexcused absences. The state's rate also spiked to 47.8% that year, so the district was not alone.
Over the next two years, the district saw steady improvement. In the 2018-2019 school year, the rate for LPSS fell to 41.9%, which was a large decrease, though it remained above the state average of 36.5%. The rate fell again to the 32% in the 2019-2020 school year.
How does LPSS handle truancy now?
Over the last few years, LPSS has taken steps to curb the truancy rate.
All schools follow the same process when a student begins missing three or more days of school without an official excuse.
After a student has three unexcused absences, the school system sends the student's parent or guardian a letter and a pace message. Over the last two years, the letter was sent to ensure they are aware of truancy and to give them the opportunity to turn in documentation that may excuse an absence. This year, the letters will be notifying parents or guardians of an on-campus meeting..
After five unexcused absences, a student is considered truant. A letter and pace message is sent to the parents or guardians to let them know that the student is truant and includes contact information from the truancy officers in case there are concerns preventing the student from coming to school.
Beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, LPSS started a Truancy Pre-Diversion program, which allowed truancy officers to meet with families to determine the underlying problems causing the student to miss school.
The truancy officer also works with the family to develop a plan to address the issues, whether it be a lack of school supplies or uniforms, a need for counseling, or another type of problem.
In the 2021-2022 school year, LPSS began using School-Based Truancy Teams. Each truancy officer has a group of people on each campus to collaboratively address concerns related to excessive absences.
When a student has an excessive number of unexcused absences, the truancy officer will work with the team to gather information on the student. The officer and the team will call the parents or guardians to discuss attendance, make adjustments if needed, and create an in intervention plan if necessary.
Under the district's policy, court is always the last resort and only happens if the truancy officer has exhausted all other options with the family.
How did LPSS compare to the state during COVID?
LPSS appeared to handle truancy issues during the pandemic better than its peers. The increase of 6.8 percentage points from the 2019-2020 school year to 2020-2021 was the 19th-lowest of the state's 70 public school districts and the second lowest in Acadiana behind only St. Landry's 5.4%.
The number of students that were considered truant in Lafayette Parish grew by 19.6%, which was the 18th-smallest increase in the state. St. Landry, with an 8.7% increase, was the only Acadiana district with a smaller increase.
On average, Louisiana's districts saw a 12.4 percentage point increase in the truancy rate and the number of students with five or more unexcused absences rose 43.9%, which is more than double the percent increase for LPSS.
In Acadiana, the average district saw a 17.6 point increase in the truancy rate and a 62.8% average increase in the number of students considered to be truant — more than three times the increase for LPSS.
The data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education does not fully capture the truancy rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, as data from the most recent school year is not available.
What schools struggle with truancy the most?
In the Lafayette Parish School System, the truancy rate for a school is closely tied to the school's racial and economic makeup.
LPSS schools where 40-60% of the student population was economically disadvantaged had an average truancy rate of 26.3% during the 2020-2021 school year, and the rate increased to 38.2% in schools where 60-80% of students are economically disadvantaged.
In schools where 80% or more students are economically disadvantaged, the rate was 51.4%.
The trend is similar for schools that have a majority-minority student population. Only one LPSS school, Milton Elementary School, has a student population where fewer than 20% of students are racial minorities. Milton had a truancy rate of 25.2% in 2020-2021.
Schools where 20-40% of students are racial minorities had an average rate of 25.7%, and schools where 40-60% of the population are minorities had a 36.6% truancy rate on average.
The average rate for schools with a student population where 60-80% of students are racial minorities was 43.6%. For schools where more than 80% of students are minorities, the average rate was 54.1%.
Schools with higher minority or economically-disadvantaged populations generally saw larger increases from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, though the difference is within a few percentage points in most cases.
Schools where at least 80% of the students are minorities saw a 11.7% percentage point increase from year-to-year, while schools where 20-40% of students are minorities had a rate of 3.4%.
CONSIDER SUBSCRIBING TODAY: Help support journalists like William Taylor Potter
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Truancy rates spiked in 2021. How did Lafayette schools do?