Audit team scours six years of records

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Since March, a team from the Office of Schools and Regions has been auditing six years’ worth of high school attendance records to ferret out the number of chronic truants who were allowed to remain on the rolls prior to the arrival of Mayor Daley’s school team. The team has found some startling numbers. For example, at Wells High, the percentage of students absent more than 40 days dropped from 34.8 percent in 1994-95 to 13.3 percent last school year. The phenomenon is not uncommon. Over the same period, Wells’ enrollment declined only slightly— from 1,692 to 1,557.

“The dropout rates prior to 96 were probably much higher than the 16 percent a year reported,” Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas told the City Council Education Committee in April, explaining that schools kept no-show kids on the rolls to keep from losing teaching positions. “We are in the process of establishing a legitimate baseline,” he explained.

To do that, about 25 attendance and truancy specialists are reviewing attendance records from every high school division teacher for the last six years. By press time, 13 high schools had been audited—Calumet, Carver, Englewood, King, Lane, Manley, Orr, Phillips, Prosser, Roosevelt, Schurz, Wells and Whitney Young.

Chief Schools and Regions Officer Blondean Y. Davis attributes the recent decline in the number of chronic truants to the School Board’s anti-truancy initiatives as well as to schools dropping chronic truants.

“That’s what we expect to see in all of the schools if you’re implementing all of our attendance processes: computerized calling, using your staff and paid volunteers to go out and visit the homes, reporting truants to our office so that we can send people on home visits. You should be doing all these things, in addition to dropping students who are excessively absent. Then you should see these numbers begin to go down.”

The board’s audit process ends with an exit conference with the principal and attendance staff.

“We were complimented on things that we were already doing,” says David Meegan, attendance director at Orr. “They liked that we had a recovery program for kids who had returned to school. We have a mandatory tutoring program here. We also have a morning and afternoon opportunity for students to get credit.”

But Meegan describes some of the auditors’ suggestions as “nonsense.” For example: What are you doing to prevent neighborhood youth from hanging on street corners or staying home with their children? “How do you answer that question?” he asks. “It’s our responsibility to teach the kids. I can accept that. Sometimes I can’t be policeman and social worker at the same time.”

He says he responded: “Why did you get rid of all the truancy officers?” A previous School Board eliminated truancy officers to save money; Vallas has said they weren’t doing their job anyway.

Although Meegan is a big fan of the board’s Truancy Outreach Program, which employs parents part time to track down truants, he’s frustrated that it’s being cut back. “That’s another example of a good program. Why is the board cutting the funds on that?” he asks, adding that Orr has put some of its own money into the effort.

Joy Maddox, attendance coordinator at Calumet, says the audit team offered some good advice for dealing with truants as well as record keeping.

Ron Beavers, director of the Department of Truancy Prevention, says that’s the goal of the audits. “We don’t go in as Big Brother,” he says. “If we’re doing your books, we’re here to help you. While we’re here, if there’s something you need help with, we can help you.”

Beavers adds that some principals look forward to the team’s arrival. “So many of the principals, they’ll call me and say, ‘Man, I’ll be glad when you get to my school,'” he says. “Some of our principals need that so-called stick to tell their teachers: ‘Hey, you’re not doing this right, and you need to improve.'”