15-year-olds dropped despite state law

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Under Illinois law, schools may not drop students for excessive absences if the students are under 16. However, some Chicago public schools do, a Catalystanalysis has found.

Catalyst examined student records (without names) from four classes of entering freshmen at seven schools—Collins, Farragut, Flower, Kelly, Phillips, Senn and Sullivan. Of the seven, only Kelly came up clean on underage drops. The other six schools dropped a total of at least 287 children under 16 between September 1994 and September 1998.

Farragut, the largest of the seven schools, had the worst record, dropping a total of 135 students before their 16th birthdays.

Of the 143 students Farragut dropped for excessive absences from the freshman class of 1994-95, 35, or 24 percent, were under 16. Of the 76 students it has dropped for excessive absences from the freshman class of 1997-98, 40, or 52 percent, were under 16 when they left.

“It’s not something the school has meant to do in any kind of fashion,” insists Principal Edward Guerra. “When we have that many kids [dropped], it means they went to Mexico and never bothered to come back—really. When kids, especially around Christmastime, when they go to Mexico and they don’t come back, they take a two- or three- or four-month vacation. We can’t carry them on our records.”

Guerra adds that Farragut attempts to abide by a state law requiring schools to conduct a due-process hearing for dropouts who want to re-enroll. A committee of teachers, counselors and administrators weighs their circumstances. Many schools simply say, No.

Janet Halfar, who is in charge of attendance at Farragut, says that so many people are involved in attendance reporting that the school wasn’t aware it was dropping students younger than 16. Division teachers are responsible for notifying the attendance status clerk when a student has crossed the threshold for absences, she notes.”It’s something that we can address at this point, now that we’re aware of it,” she says.

“We’re making what we felt was a massive and focused effort on attendance,” Halfar adds.

Collins dropped many fewer underage students during the four years examined, but its record got steadily worse. It dropped two underage students from its freshman class of 1994-95 but eight from the 1997-98 class.

Extreme truants

Alice Montgomery, who doubles as Collins’s point person on attendance and its International Baccalaureate coordinator, says the school’s record likely reflects cases of extreme truants who resist all efforts to bring them back.

“The board instituted what they called a TOPS program—parents who go out and look for them,” she says. “Some students are just not going to come to school.”

In those cases, she says, Collins is probably recording accurately the situation. “He’s not lost,” she says of such a student. “We know where he is, but the parent says he’s not coming back.”

Montgomery echoes other attendance officers when she says that recent changes in board policy are driving the overall increase in dropouts. “The governing rules changed about dropping,” she observes. “That comes from the board. It doesn’t come from us.”

Flower, the smallest school in the Catalyst study, dropped only three to four students in each group of students before their 16th birthdays. Senn, a mid-size high school, also remained relatively constant over the period, with 6 to 13 underage drops for each class.

Both Phillips and Sullivan had improving records. Phillips dropped 29 underage students from the 1994-95 class, but only 11 from the 1997-98 class. The comparable numbers for Sullivan were eight and two.

Ron Beavers, director of the Department of Truancy Prevention, speculates that some of these under-16 students were dropped legitimately but recorded improperly. Under state law, schools may drop under-16 students who are considered “lost,” but first they much conduct a “reasonable search.” CPS policy adds that the school “has the responsibility of continuing the search regardless of the fact that the pupil has been dropped from school membership.”

“Sometimes we have new personnel coming into the system, and they don’t know the codes,” says Beavers. “If somebody tells them, ‘This kid is gone,’ they’ll code him wrong.”

However, one assistant principal, who asked not to be identified, acknowledges that her school does not search for lost students. “We say we look for them, but how can we?” she asks. “We focus on the kids we can save; we let go of the ones we can’t.”

Other principals say that while they follow the rules, they feel pressured to drop poor attendees regardless of their age. For example, Manley Principal Katharine Flanagan says that when the Office of Schools and Regions sent an audit team to her school, “there were issues around why we were holding students on the rolls. My response was, because they were 14 and 15 years old.”

Asked whether central office monitors the age of students dropped for excessive absences, Chief Schools and Regions Officer Blondean Y. Davis says simply, “You cannot legally drop a child under 16.”

Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas says: “We don’t push schools to drop kids from their rolls under 16.”

Editor’s note: Catalyst’s findings on underage dropouts may understate the problem. The reason is that we looked at groups of students who became freshmen in September of 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 but not at students who transferred into the seven schools during the school year.