Exclusive: New Minneapolis Data Finds High Absenteeism Among Disabled Kids

Some 1,600 special education students don’t get to school regularly. At some schools, more than three-fourths miss weeks of class.

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Correction appended March 13

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of students with disabilities who are chronically absent from Minneapolis Public Schools has doubled or nearly doubled in more than a third of schools. More than 1,600 do not attend classes on a regular basis.

In four schools, the number has tripled, and in two there has been more than a four-fold increase. Attendance has improved in just six of the 55 traditional schools for which the district recently released five years of school-level attendance data. 

The district did not post data regarding 14 specialized schools that serve students with profound needs, including self-contained special education programs. At some of those programs, attendance is not reported at all. According to separate state data, less than 4% of students enrolled in Minneapolis’s high school for students with the most intensive behavioral issues attend on a regular basis.

The numbers illuminate a largely unexamined facet of a national crisis coming out of the pandemic’s school disruptions. Historically, students with disabilities are the demographic group most likely to suffer from high rates of absenteeism. And they are so vulnerable to the resulting harms that federal civil rights laws require educators to take special care to make sure they get to school — and that they get help catching up once they are there. 

Indeed, within weeks of the first COVID school closures in 2020, the U.S. Department of Education warned that shifts to remote learning did not absolve education leaders of their responsibilities to this population. Minnesota was quick to adopt a law requiring school systems to identify special education students who needed extra help making up academic and developmental losses, and offering to help defray the cost. It’s unclear how many received these recovery services. 

Overall, according to data recently posted by the Minneapolis district, the number of students with disabilities who are chronically absent rose from 29% in the academic year that ended in 2019 to a peak of 53% in 2022 and then 46% in 2023. However, those averages conceal huge variations among individual schools, ranging from 21% to 80% in 2023.

The state and the district use different calculations to determine whether a student is chronically absent. Under the state’s definition — students who miss 10% or more of school days for which they were enrolled  — Minneapolis’s 2022 special education absenteeism rate was 61%, versus 39% statewide. The district counts only students who are enrolled for 95 or more days.

Students who qualify as chronically absent under the state rule have missed more than three weeks of the school year. 

Absenteeism is a predictor of poor student outcomes as early as kindergarten. Elementary pupils who are chronically absent risk not being able to read by third grade. Students who reach that watershed mark illiterate are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Students who miss 10% or more of any year between eighth and 12th grades are seven times more likely to drop out. 

In 2023, some 5,000 district students received special education services, state statistics show, and in 2022, just 37% of them attended school consistently. Of those, 16% and 19%, respectively, met grade-level standards for math and reading. In 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, about half graduated. In 2021, 87 went on to post-secondary education. One-fourth of those who did earned a year’s college credits within two years. 

Minneapolis officials declined The 74’s request for an interview for this story or for comment on our data analysis. In a statement, special education officials said attendance is a topic of quarterly discussions district leaders have with school administrators about student learning outcomes in general. They also suggested that families are keeping children with disabilities home over health concerns.  

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the law that guarantees disabled children’s rights, requires districts to identify children who need supports — a mandate that extends to tracking down missing pupils and investigating whether their disability factors into why they are not in school. If it does — common reasons include an environment that is hostile or overwhelms a child with sensory issues — the school must make appropriate accommodations. 

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand an appeals court decision finding that a school system adjacent to Minneapolis violated the rights of a student who, year after year, was absent for weeks. The district should have investigated why the girl didn’t come to school, the court ruled. Instead, she was repeatedly disenrolled.

Often, the students school leaders don’t go in search of are disengaged because they are not getting the help they need to succeed, says Andrea Jepsen, a Twin Cities special education attorney who was one of the lawyers who brought the case.

“Districts love to make much of the absences of a child on an [Individualized Education Program] because they think it gets them off the hook to show progress,” she says. “But generally, the kid is not absent enough to justify the abject failure to produce meaningful progress on ambitious goals and objectives in the kids that I see. 

“And again, those absences should prompt further inquiry, not total resignation.”

Indeed, research has found that while children with disabilities quickly lose academic ground when classes are interrupted, they also are more likely than other students to post strong growth during the school year. 

Minneapolis has struggled to provide basic services to students with disabilities. The district has had a number of unstaffed special education classrooms over the last four years.  

In 2022, the district abruptly canceled in-person summer learning for hundreds of children who had been promised help bouncing back. Officials cited staffing problems, something disability advocates were quick to point out is neither a justification allowed by law nor an issue that plagued summer programming for general education students. Neighboring districts had no similar staffing problems.

The number of unfilled special education teacher and paraprofessional jobs increased in Minneapolis between fall 2022 and the start of the current school year, with vacancies concentrated in the highest-poverty schools. The exact extent of the staffing shortage has been the subject of a tussle between school board members who have repeatedly asked for data and administrators who depict hiring as ongoing. 

The local news site Minneapolis Schools Voices analyzed job openings both years, finding 46 vacant special educator positions at the start of the 2022-23 academic year and 58 this year, as well as more than 100 unfilled classroom aide jobs. 

One reason for the increase: In early 2023, district leaders announced the creation of 400 academic intervention positions to help struggling students recover from pandemic setbacks. Some of the new jobs were filled by special educators. At least 14 teachers who had taken interventionist jobs were asked to return to the classroom, according to presentations to the board. 

In November, district leaders told the board that three schools had no intervention staff. Special education chronic absenteeism at those schools ranges from 59% to 70%.

Parents of students receiving disability services at the city’s highest-poverty schools say that six months into the school year there are still special education classrooms without a dedicated teacher. Because some of the same schools — which tend to enroll students with disabilities at much higher rates — lack the new intervention staff, advocates fear that many of the educators needed to support disabled children have ended up at wealthier and better-staffed schools enrolling fewer, lower-needs special education students. 

National research has found that students with disabilities are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be chronically absent than their general education classmates, for reasons ranging from chronic health problems to anxiety caused by bullying and harassment, trauma and housing insecurity. 

A 2017 study found that students with emotional disturbances were more than 13 percentage points more likely to be chronically absent than general education pupils in the same classrooms. Children with learning disabilities were 8 percentage points more likely to be missing than their classmates. 

The same research found that it mattered whether a disabled student was assigned to a regular classroom or one populated mostly with special education students. Students in segregated settings were 17 points more likely to be absent, and 24 points more likely if they are in a self-contained classroom and have an emotional disturbance. Children served mostly in general education settings were only 5 points more likely to be chronically absent. 

A professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, Michael Gottfried is one of the authors of the 2017 paper. To him, the findings reveal a cycle of disengagement. 

“What we think is actually happening is school belonging,” he says. “In inclusive, traditional rooms, [students] feel connected to the adults. And they don’t feel that way when they’re in segregated rooms.” 

It’s likely that absenteeism among students served in the most restrictive settings has an impact on educator engagement, too, he adds, feeding a vicious cycle. 

IDEA, the law that holds schools responsible for students with disabilities, says they must be educated in the “least restrictive setting” — alongside their non-disabled peers as often as possible. That means it’s incumbent on schools to ensure the environment is hospitable to all children, including those with sensory challenges, anxiety and other traits that can make remaining in class traumatic enough that a student refuses to go to school, says Maren Christenson, executive director of Minneapolis’s Multicultural Autism Action Network. 

“There’s a difference between mainstreaming and inclusion,” she says. “This is about creating environments where all students can succeed. Sometimes that means asking, ‘How crowded are the hallways? Does the bell system make you want to jump out of your skin?’ ”

To this, add the months of pandemic-driven turmoil during which many children with disabilities were left without workable remote instruction, says Gottfried: “Expectations are broken and family trust is broken. The message keeps changing. That creates anxiety about school. There’s probably a sense of disappointment that services used to be offered for [a] child and now they’re not.”

Minnesota schools receive state funding according to how many students show up each day. Because of this, the attendance policy school leaders are most accustomed to worrying about is a law requiring them to disenroll any student who is absent for 15 or more consecutive days. Tracking how many children miss 17 or more days a year is a newer requirement — and one that in many places is the responsibility of district leaders, not educators or principals. 

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would require schools to report much more detailed information on chronically absent students, including how many miss more than 10%, 30% and 50% of the year, and to calculate the numbers for each demographic group. 

“Even a return to pre-pandemic numbers isn’t good enough,” says Matt Shaver, policy director of EdAllies, which is lobbying for the new reporting requirements. “The deleterious effects of missing that much school — they compound. You can look at those numbers and predict who’s probably not going to graduate from high school.”

Correction: Andrea Jepsen is a Twin Cities special education attorney. An earlier version of this story misspelled her last name.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation provided funding for the research referenced by University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education Professor Michael Gottfried and  financial support to The 74.

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