News Story

Detroit Students Missed 1.5 Million Days of School Last Year

The equivalent of 30 absences per pupil

The 50,000 students enrolled in the Detroit public school district last year missed a total of 1,539,981 days of school, the equivalent of 30 absences per student.

That’s the average across all students, factoring in those who missed far more days and those who missed few or no days. The figures were obtained from the district in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

But Detroit Public School officials say those numbers can be misleading if not put into proper context. The district has several different categories for absences and considers many in the total to have been excused. The 1.5 million figure includes days missed due to illness, suspensions, pending expulsions and more.

The Detroit district also has a transient population of students, estimated to be in the hundreds, who registered for school in the next grade but may have moved, according to spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski.

"In reality, DPS' absence rate is approximately 5.5 percent of a student's enrolled days," Zdrodowski said.

The district’s median number of student absences for 2014-15 was 8,113 students a day. That means about 16 percent of the student body doesn't show up on a typical day.

The district had its lowest absenteeism on the two “count days." The first count day was Oct. 1, 2014, when only 2,580 students were absent, and 48,881 students showed up. That fall count day accounts for 90 percent of the money (known as the state foundation allowance) the district receives from the state, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

The second count day was Feb. 11, 2015, when just 3,847 students were absent and 47,087 students came to school. That accounted for the other 10 percent of the funding that comes from the state.

School districts often make extraordinary efforts to bring students in that day, because it determines the level of funding it will get from the state.

The average number of absent DPS students was 8,750 per day last year. The figure may have been skewed by two days on which more than 20,000 students were not in class.

On Jan. 9, 27,636 Detroit students missed class in a mass exodus equal to 54 percent of the district's total attendance on count day. This occurred on a Friday when the high temperature was 18 degrees — the same day as a 194-car whiteout-induced pileup on I-94 in Kalamazoo County.

The only other day last year when more than 20,000 DPS students missed school was Nov. 11, which was Veterans Day. On that day, 23,552 students missed class, which was a half-day for the district.

The state of Michigan tracks school absenteeism rates and makes the information available online.

Detroit Public Schools had 64.8 percent of its students listed as "chronically absent" by the state, meaning that those students missed more than 10 days of school or more. The state average is 27.8 percent.

"This level of student absenteeism is staggering," said John Rakolta, the CEO of Walbridge and the co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, in an email. "But placing all the blame on the children ignores the important fact that these statistics reveal both a cause and a symptom of the dysfunction hanging over Detroit’s education landscape."

"We know that the reasons for skipping school are complex, rooted in issues beyond the four walls of the classroom that must be addressed by the adults in our community — parents, teachers, administrators, clergy and legislators," Rakolta continued. "That’s why the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a diverse group of unlikely partners, was formed last Christmas. We’re committed to doing better by these kids, which includes motivating greater student and parental accountability, setting higher expectations on attendance and academic performance, and putting teeth into solutions. But make no mistake; continuing to kick the can of funding and accountability for management of the district down the road is the most pernicious form of absenteeism."

Editor's note: Veteran's Day is a half-day for the Detroit Public Schools. That was added to the story.