Enrollment up, attendance slipping in Prince William Co. schools

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

Attendance at Prince William County Schools took a dip in the first quarter of the school year compared to quarter one of the 2021-22 year, but student grades have improved, according to a school system presentation Dec. 7.

With 91,456 total students during the first quarter of the school year, county schools have nearly erased all the enrollment losses suffered since the start of the pandemic. Enrollment had been growing steadily, reaching a high of 91,526 before the pandemic shut down in-person schooling.

But while the school system is now on track to surpass its pre-pandemic enrollment records next school year, its seen a decline in overall attendance since last year, with nearly one in five students racking up five or more absences during the 44-day first quarter this year, a rate that the state considers to be chronic absenteeism. According to [Michael] Neall’s presentation, 18% of students racked up five or more absences during the first quarter, whereas this year that number was 19%. In addition, a lower percentage of students had no absences – just 28% compared with 31% over the same period last year.

It’s possible that the continued shift by families away from the school division’s virtual schooling options have something to do with the absence increase. At just 261 students, virtual-only enrollment now accounts for just .29% of the school system’s total student population. At the start of last year, virtual-only students made up about 3% of the overall enrollment.

Young Prince William County students walk in to Bennett Elementary School in Manassas on the first day of the 2022-23 school year. (Jared Foretek | InsideNoVa)

Middle schoolers and high schoolers diverged slightly in terms of grade trends during the first quarter. While the percentage of middle schoolers failing no courses grew in the first quarter of the school year compared with the same period last year, from 85.7% last year to 87.2% this year, the percentage of students failing no courses actually fell slightly, from 68.5% to 68.2%. And though the percentage of middle schoolers receiving As increased in most subjects, the percentage receiving As in high school either stayed roughly flat or fell in every subject.

Neall noted that grades could still change if failing students demonstrated new “mastery of material” even after the quarter ended earlier in the fall.

At the elementary school level, Neall reported that 35.72% of students from grades 1-5 were found by their teachers to be reading below grade level, 44.21% were on grade level, and 20.07% were above grade level.

In math – a focus of the school system since the end of virtual schooling that saw math grades and test scores fall across the county and the state – grades mostly ticked up in middle school but fell slightly in high school from last year. But one subject in which grades dropped across all levels – including elementary school – was science.

Superintendent LaTanya McDade said the division was in the process of filling some new system-wide science positions that were funded in the most recent budget. She said science is a continuing focus for the school system’s administration.

“We did deliver science materials – hands-on science instruction materials – to schools, as well as ensuring all schools are utilizing the updated standards for teaching science, and those schools where there is a significant gap, we have plans in place, full science plans and action plans in place that are being monitored,” McDade said last week. “So we do have a heavy focus on science, we’re looking at the data and supporting the schools and tracking progress over time.”

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