Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Department of Education leaders visit Pittsburgh to discuss chronic absenteeism

People sit at a table with microphones in a school library.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Leaders with the U.S. Department of Education visited Pittsburgh’s North Side on Monday to discuss chronic absenteeism alongside teachers, administrators, students and parents.

Roughly 37% of students at Pittsburgh Public Schools were considered chronically absent — missing at least 10% of school days — during the 2023-2024 school year.

Leaders with the U.S. Department of Education visited Pittsburgh’s North Side on Monday to discuss the issue with teachers, administrators and parents.

“It's having conversations with parents — talking with them, not to them,” said Dawn Gordon, principal of Pittsburgh King PreK-8.

Gordon said school leaders are focused on building relationships with families to address the systemic reasons for missing class.

“Asking them, ‘What is it you need? How can we better support you in order to get your child to school?’” she added.

Gordon said many of her students care for younger siblings and have to miss school when they are sick. Others come from neighborhoods facing gun violence.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Want more stories about our education system? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

To address these underlying factors, Gordon said teachers at the school are paired with chronically absent students for regular check-ins.

Teachers meet with students “before we place whatever it is our expectations are in front of [students], to make sure that they're ready, mentally, to deal with that,” she said.

King PreK-8 also has a team dedicated to addressing issues of absenteeism. Signs point toward some recent success: attendance rates at the school have increased by close to 12% since 2021, according to the district’s attendance dashboard.

Nationwide, more than one in four students were considered chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year. Research shows missing large amounts of school is a leading indicator of whether a student is likely to read proficiently by third grade or graduate from high school, especially in low-income households.

U.S. Department of Education Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten said the Biden-Harris administration is working with districts to get more kids consistently in the classroom.

“It's about a community coming together, having a principal who's working with the teachers and the parents to understand the reasons — not excuses — and then removing the barriers,” Marten said.

Audie Chapman is the executive director of the North Side Youth Athletic Association, as well as the wrestling coach at Westinghouse Academy 6-12 and the father of two PPS students. He told Marten districts need to engage more parent leaders, who can encourage other families to get involved on absenteeism and other issues.

“They have to be engaged. They have to want to be there,” Chapman said. “They have to want to know what their child is learning and be heavily involved.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.