BRONX (WABC) -- It has been a tough couple of years for students and teachers, from drops in funding to more students not showing up for class.
7 On Your Side Investigates is tracking new trends in the country's largest school system ahead of the first day of classes Thursday.
As Chanel Quintero prepares her New York City classroom for the new school year, the special education teacher hopes it's a brighter year for students.
"We were here together, but we were separated," she said.
Watch | Eyewitness News back to school town hall with Schools Chancellor David Banks
The longtime teacher at P.S. 35 in the Bronx says it's time to start getting back to normal, and she's building into her lesson plans and the walls of her classroom what she calls "bringing back the happy."
"Bring back the happy is really our main focus," she said. "We want our kids to come back loud and boisterous. Quiet hallways are not fun hallways. They're not working, they're not engaged."
We analyzed school data to see what teachers and students are facing this year -- and there are some bright spots.
First, more students are finishing school. Graduation rates are up for the school year after the pandemic started compared to the year before, and fewer students are dropping out.
That number was down by 3% during the same time period.
"I think we can credit educators and families with those numbers," said Assistant Professor Erika Kitzmiller, who teaches education at Barnard College. "They're facing a number of challenges and opportunities."
When it comes to challenges, the school data shows a big drop in student enrollment -- by more than 80,000 students -- compared to before the pandemic. That means less school funding.
Plus, more students aren't showing up on a regular basis. Chronic absenteeism is up to a percentage we haven't seen in years.
"Kids who don't come to school regularly are much more at risk of dropping out, particularly if they're in the ninth or tenth grade in high school," Kitzmiller said.
RELATED | NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks talks safety, unveils added measures
As for how elementary school students are performing, when it comes to math and reading, we don't know exactly.
Standardized testing wasn't required during the height of the pandemic, and last spring's results haven't been realized publicly yet.
"That's one more litmus that teachers are going to be evaluated on," Kitzmiller said. "If the scores dip, what does that mean? That's going to be a question that I think people are going to grabble with."
And with fewer students and fewer dollars, teachers say they're going to be getting creative when it comes to keeping students engaged.
"Less children this year for us, potentially less staff members, less money to do things," Quintero said. "So we are really looking at what we have here and then using the most out of what we've got."
DO YOU NEED A STORY INVESTIGATED? Dan Krauth, Kristin Thorne, and the 7 On Your Side Investigates team at Eyewitness News want to hear from you! Call our confidential tip line 1-877-TIP-NEWS (847-6397) or fill out the form BELOW.
You can also contact Dan Krauth directly:
Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to 7OnYourSideDan@abc.com
Twitter: @ DanKrauthABC7