NEW BEDFORD — New Bedford’s graduation rate reached new heights during the pandemic, a feat touted by district administrators and the mayor, but the percentage of students earning their diplomas has dipped again, and still remains behind virtually all peer districts across the state.
When Thomas Anderson became superintendent in 2018, the district-wide graduation rate was 58%, which Mayor Jon Mitchell has referred to as “abysmal.” Over the five years of Anderson’s tenure, that rate surged more than 20 percentage points, eclipsing 80% in 2020 when the state removed testing requirements for graduation. Anderson cited this as his signature achievement while applying for other superintendent jobs, eventually securing a position in his hometown East Hartford, Conn., for next year.
While the accomplishment of more students graduating — which will lead to benefits like better job opportunities and improved health outcomes — has been publicly celebrated, there has been a simultaneous spike in attendance and mental health concerns among students, which has made New Bedford part of a growing national trend where attendance and graduation rates have headed in different directions.
Graduation data for 2022 shows the four-year rate for New Bedford has slipped back to 75%, its lowest since before the pandemic, in 2019, and a major step back for all the gains of the last five years.
Meanwhile, attendance concerns that significantly worsened during the pandemic are still part of the post-pandemic landscape. “There's a heightened amount of students who are having difficulty transitioning back to school,” said Eliana Malinoski, a counselor at Keith Middle School.
“It's a lot more of [students] feeling anxious to come to school, and feeling anxious at school within the social environment,” Malinoski said. And absences aren’t the only way this anxiety has manifested: “There's a lot of tardies, and they're coming into school later in the day.”
Traditionally, school attendance has been one of the best predictors for graduation — not only does turning up to school show investment, but students simply don’t learn the material when they’re missing. So the recent trend in which graduation rates shot up while attendance flatlined or declined in recent years has been perplexing.
“These things that you would expect to go in the same direction, aren't,” said Walter Stroup, associate professor of education at UMass Dartmouth. “When they disagree, that requires us to look at the complex story, and maybe even re-examine the metrics.”
Additionally, test scores are another of the confounding metrics that, like attendance, aren't going the same direction as graduation rates. But Stroup said test scores have always been a poor way to understand student performance. “The bottom line is that these tests are not helping schools improve. That's been true for decades, and yet they're the first thing that people point to.”
“The interesting question,” he said, “is how do you have attendance go down … and still have the graduation rates where they are.”
What’s going on with student attendance?
Last year the chronic absenteeism rate at New Bedford High was nearly 70%, meaning the large majority of students missed at least 18 days of school — among the higher rates statewide. This year, as of April, chronic absenteeism at New Bedford High is still above 50%.
Tammy Morgan, the district's executive director of student services, said “no challenges are specific to New Bedford.” Instead, Morgan said health concerns — including coronavirus, RSV, and mental health issues — were among the obstacles to student attendance, which she pointed out was true across the country.
But at the high school, Associate Principal Joyce Cardoza said that attendance concerns in New Bedford do have specific causes. “When we look at the factors that are unique to our community, [chronic absenteeism] has hit us even harder,” Cardoza said.
Among these factors: “Many of our English learners come in and start high school at an older age [due to] the competing factor of work. They're having to help support their families.”
Mitchell acknowledged that attendance was the most pressing issue in the schools during his recent State of the City address, saying “the immediate focus will be to deal with chronic absenteeism, which skyrocketed during the pandemic and has not nearly come back down. This is already affecting the graduation rate. We need to get kids plugged back in, and fast.”
Previously, Mitchell had praised graduation rates as a great New Bedford success story, including in last year's address when he said the soaring graduation rate was “one of the most dramatic improvements in a major urban high school anywhere in America.”
Now, with attendance catching the mayor’s attention, he and several School Committee members have formed a new sub-committee that will focus on tracking and publishing data for parents.
While the mayor said he hopes that an easy-to-use “dashboard” — which will collate many metrics already shared on the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website — can solve the problem, others say the solution must focus on the student experience.
“The curriculum is becoming increasingly rigid,” said Stroup, the UMass Dartmouth professor, who works with many local educators. “Teachers feel like these scripted curricula are being imposed though districts like New Bedford.”
In essence, Stroup said, attendance rates could be an issue because the curriculum is not aligned to kids' interests or experiences. “School isn’t appealing when it’s relentless test prep.”
The district also is building partnerships that focus explicitly on mental health, like with Chanda Coutinho at Child & Family Services, one of the oldest local nonprofits that has operated since the days of whaling ships.
“Even missing one day gets [students] behind, and from there the anxiety and depression get fed,” said Coutinho, who helps organize counseling services in 10 New Bedford elementary schools, all three middle schools, and other area schools like Alma Del Mar and GNB Voc-Tech.
Coutinho said she has seen an increase in students’ anxiety in recent years. “The pandemic has played a big part in that, and it has not gone away,” she said.
Another program piloted this year has been placing youth mentors in the schools.
One of them is Alyssa Pinaretta, a New Bedford native now studying psychology at Boston College. Every week she spends two full days at Keith Middle School, working under the direction of the school adjustment counselor to intervene and coach students.
“Being from New Bedford, I understand the climate outside of school that these students have and how that can affect them inside the school,” said Pinaretta, whose involvement was organized by Coaching4Change, a nonprofit that pairs college students with school districts to offer mentoring and other services.
Pinaretta helps counselors to re-engage students, including one boy who was kicked out of his math class. “I spent about 45 minutes working with him, and I was like, ‘OK, I have to bring you back to class — the period's over.’ And as we were walking back to class, he was like, ‘Thank you so much. I haven't had somebody sit down and have this one-on-one and actually talk to me and wanna get to know why I feel this way.’”
With these types of interventions already in place, and the mayor’s new school sub-committee focusing on attendance concerns, there’s a concerted effort to get New Bedford’s children back into the schools.
And as seniors are only weeks away from this year’s commencement exercises (with many finishing their AP exams recently), the ultimate measure of these interventions will again be the graduation rate.
Even with the net gains to the district’s graduation rate since 2018, New Bedford still lags behind almost all other large school districts in Massachusetts. And among those schools there is a clear and familiar trend: attendance is one of the most reliable ways to earn a diploma.
For her part, Pinaretta, the youth mentor in New Bedford, wants to show kids that academics can open doors to new experiences. When a group of students approached her to ask where she went to college, they were impressed and inspired that she made it to Boston College.
"You can do it, too. You just have to put your mind to it and work really hard,” Pinaretta responded to them. “They were like, ‘I think I'm gonna do that,' and I'm glad to have that positive impact on them.”
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