McNamara introduces package of bills that targets chronic school absenteeism


STATE HOUSE — Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, chairman of the House Education Committee, is focusing on school attendance with a package of bills that seeks to curb chronic absenteeism along with the negative consequences it has on students, including lower achievement and course failure.

“Students who are frequently absent are far more likely to miss important learning opportunities, are less likely to stay engaged, and are of far greater risk of dropping out,” said Representative McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston). “According to the most recent Kids Count Factbook, 39 percent of middle school students and 47 percent of high school students were considered truant by the Department of Education, which defines truancy as 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year. School absenteeism has become a national crisis, with impoverished families suffering the most. This has become such an educational priority that we need to find more creative ways to address the problem.”

The first bill (2024-H 7289) would direct the Department of Education to establish a two-year pilot outreach and tracking program at two public high schools to address issues of attendance and chronic absenteeism among students.

“This would be a data-driven program to see whether outreach and tracking measures would be effective in promoting increased school attendance, especially among those populations that have been identified as having high rates of chronic absenteeism,” said Representative McNamara.

Under the legislation, the Department of Education would identify two public high schools in the state, one from an urban district and one from a suburban or rural district, to initiate the outreach and tracking program, which would be an intensive community support program combining outreach, care coordination, advocacy, academic support, and crisis response within the two schools. Frequent contact with youth and families would be maintained to provide necessary assistance and skill development, while at the same time encouraging individual and family responsibility and empowerment.

The second bill (2024-H 7290) would direct each local education agency to adopt a program to monitor absenteeism data to identify students in their schools who are at risk for chronic absenteeism before it becomes a chronic situation.

“For those districts experiencing high rates of absenteeism, this bill would direct them to establish attendance support teams,” said Representative McNamara, who served as an educator in Pawtucket for 37 years. “We need to look at more effective ways to help families overcome the issues that hamper their attendance, so we can come up with solutions to the unique problems that plague individual families.”

The act would also direct the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to establish a chronic absenteeism prevention and intervention plan by Jan. 1, 2025, to include each school district’s absenteeism rate within the report on school discipline presented annually to the General Assembly, and to include the school or district’s absenteeism rate in any report card or evaluation of the effectiveness of a school or district.

The third bill (2024-H 7195) would authorize a one-year pilot program during the 2024-2025 school year that would provide outreach and tracking at two public high schools and two public middle schools to address issues of asthma and attendance among students.

According to the Rhode Island Kids Count Fact Book, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism, accounting for one-third of all absences in the state. Under the legislation, the pilot program would aim to learn what can be done to reduce student absences due to asthma, with a particular focus on chronic absenteeism due to asthma and the conditions within a school building that may contribute to incidents of asthma.

Community health workers would be assigned to specific schools and coordinate with the school nurse teachers to collect data and monitor, on a daily basis, student absences within the school, and identify those absences caused by asthma.

The pilot program would involve the Department of Health, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state office of Medicaid, and the Rhode Island Data Hub. The team would report its findings and recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by Nov. 7, 2025.