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Back in session: School board talks attendance, enrollment, achievement gap at first session since start of school year

It's been a long summer, but school is back in session and the school board is back to its usual evening monthly board meeting time. On behalf of Sept. being dubbed attendance awareness month, Monday night's meeting started off talking attendance with a presentation from School Social Worker Karin Fritz-Staley.

Fritz-Staley began her presentation talking about how important it is for students to show up to class, particularly during that first month: "It basically just starts a habit of them showing up."

While some parents may be reminded of the chronic absentee problem the high school had last year, Fritz-Staley was quick to not single out any one school or grade, saying this issue can start as early as Kindergarten and, when it does start early, it's that much harder for students to get ahead--or even just keep up.

Not to mention one student's chronic absenteeism can drag the whole class down.

"If you have a classroom with chronically absent kids, it really slows the turn of the rest of the class," said Fritz-Staley, adding that the issue is teachers having to work harder to help the chronically-absent kids catch up, which takes time away from the kids that are actually there on time every day.

Per school, the number of chronically absent kids ranges: Rossman has 41 chronically absent students, Roosevelt has 54, the middle school has 133, and the high school has 108. (Students who were absent because of school activities were not included in these numbers. Though, School Board President David Langworthy did point out that, for some students, an activity would cause them to be chronically absent, at least for seventh and eighth hours).

The high school principal, Darren Wolf, interjected to add that the high school identified chronic absenteeism as an issue last year and worked to lower their number of absent students, seeing some success.

Fritz-Staley added that the number of chronically absent students are down across the district, but not without hard work on behalf of staff and teachers. She has been going around to classrooms since the 2017-18 school year began, talking with students about how important it is for them to show up, and she has also been talking prevention with staff and teachers: early intervention, addressing barriers like transportation, and clearly conveying the importance of attendance.

But, when it comes down to it, the parents are also going to have to get involved to help this issue, particularly with showing parents it might be a good idea to plan their family vacations around the school calendar.

"It's just getting parents to think about it," said Fritz-Staley.

Moving forward, enrollment for this year is down one kid compared to last year at this time, according to Superintendent Doug Froke's report.

With the kindergarten class added to the figures, enrollment sits at 3,112. However, when the kindergarten is not included, grades one through 12 are considered to be up 11 students over this time last year, meaning the kindergarten class is smaller than normal and, the elementary grades--as predicted--are higher, with "the bubble" of students now sitting in grades five, six, and seven, all at the middle school.

Among other business, Education Director Renee Kerzman reported the MCA tests. Throughout the district, students were slightly below state average in math, above state average in reading, and well above state average in science this year, though Kerzman was quick to remind everyone that "it's not fair to compare one year to the next to the next. It's a snapshot in time. It's one test, one day." (The ACT scores for the high school also came back slightly below state average this year at a composite score of 20.8, compared with the state composite score of 21.5).

The MCA results also showed that the achievement gap does not appear to be closing, which is also true all across Minnesota.

"We're not closing that gap as quickly as we'd like," said Kerzman. "That's something we're going to keep focusing on."

Among other next steps, Kerzman said they are shifting their focus this year to address ways to serve the higher-need students (of which, the Detroit Lakes district has a higher number than the state average), and they are also focusing on ways to find and keep new students and teacher, especially, being that the district is still "really, really feeling the strain of the tight labor market," according to Froke.

"We are struggling, to put it frankly," he said.