Loudoun County’s students overall remain above state averages, but rising rates of absenteeism and high schoolers not graduating on time show some are being left behind, and school attendance is key, according to an annual report from the county government’s Advisory Commission on Youth.
While overall Loudoun students have above-average rates for on-time graduation, three schools were actually below the state average: Park View, Tuscarora, and Dominion High Schools. Advisory Commission on Youth Vice Chairman Mike Reles said late graduation, dropping out and chronic absenteeism were most common in the areas around those schools.
“It seems to be centered around the Sterling area and the Leesburg area, and it’s not the schools as much as it is the populations,” Reles told the Board of Supervisors during a briefing last week.
He said this year’s study indicated that the populations most likely to be chronically absent were socioeconomically disadvantaged kids and Hispanic children. Last year, 80 percent of dropouts were Hispanic. The report does not indicate what percentage were socioeconomically disadvantaged.
The report also notes that no one factor leads to dropping out, which is the result of a combination factors in the community, school, and family. But, the report also says, keeping kids in school helps protect them against many other risk factors.
“A lot can be done,” Reles said. “… Chronic absenteeism is a precursor to not graduating on time, and then not graduating on time is a precursor to dropping out.”
By high school, regular school attendance is a better indicator of whether a student will drop out of school than his or her test scores. And a student who is chronically absent during high school is seven times more likely to drop out.
All of those contributed to an overall downward trend in on-time graduation rates in Loudoun, which also includes dropouts. Since 2015, Loudoun has slipped from 97 percent on-time graduation, 10th in the state, to 94.7 percent in 2019, 32nd in the state. The average among Virginia’s 131 school districts was 91.5 percent.
“We think there could be gains if we recognize the populations that are struggling to graduate on time, and we push some resources to them,” Reles said. “Doesn’t mean brand new resources, just means realigning resources. When you lift the hood on on-time graduation rate, it is squarely focused on socioeconomically disadvantaged kids.”
In a survey, middle schoolers indicated the biggest problem they face is bullying, and high schoolers said the biggest problem they face is the availability of drugs. The report also indicates increased incidents of bullying, substance abuse and violence among youth, including an increase in alcohol, tobacco and drug offenses of 215 percent over two years.
Meanwhile, the report notes that the Evening Reporting Center, which provided intervention for young people sent by their probation officers or judges and provided dinner, mentoring, education and recreation, was closed last year.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) seized upon the increased drug use, and a link between drug use as a young person and substance abuse or dependency later in life.
“Legalizing marijuana is just so foolish,” Randall said. “Marijuana is a drug that impacts the brain, and if you think you’re going to legalize marijuana and not have it more used by our youth, you’re out of your mind.”
She said while she supports decriminalizing marijuana, she will “fight to the finish” against legalizing marijuana.
Also during their April 21 meeting, supervisors heard the result of the Youth Net report, an outgrowth of the previous board’s strategic focus on youth that brought to together about 30 representatives from government, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and businesses. The project assessed the services available to young people in Loudoun, and the Advisory Commission on Youth plans to form a committee to continue that work into the future.
That report recommended creating a single hub of information about youth programs; continuing to fund the Youth Net initiative into the future; consider ways to make youth programs affordable to everyone; customizing services to different parts of the county; and including mental health and wellness services in schools and other places where young people congregate.
That joined the Advisory Commission on Youth’s recommendations to add multilingual, culturally informed attendance officers in certain areas, continued support of existing youth programs, see-something-say-something program to address bullying, and expanding the after-hours teen center at Cascades Library to other public libraries among other ideas.
Supervisors welcome the largely good news of the reports and were supportive of many of the recommendations.
“I’ll just mention to my colleagues that, keep in mind when budget season comes back around, or when some departments come up with some of these issues, I hope we all can be as sympathetic as we are tonight and vote to allocate funding for some of these programs,” said Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling).