Dropout rate climbs as schools dump truants

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Under pressure to increase attendance rates and test scores, high schools are dropping more students from their rolls.

The number of dropouts from the Chicago Public Schools increased by almost 1,500 students between the last two school years even though high school enrollment dropped by almost 3,000, due to the School Reform Board’s policy of retaining low-scoring students.

In 1996-97, 15,873 of the system’s 101,590 high school students dropped out, for a rate of 15.6 percent, according to calculations by the Illinois State Board of Education.

The following year, the rate rose to 17.5 percent, the highest of the decade; 17,328 of 98,610 high school students dropped out.

“We are creating a social tragedy by pushing students out of school in order to boost school system stats,” says Suzanne Davenport, acting executive director of Designs for Change. “When these students leave school, they don’t disappear. They can’t get a job with a future. They are much more likely to end up disrupting their neighborhoods and get in trouble with the law.”

“Five years ago,” she adds, “many high schools were reaching out to convince marginal students to stay in school.”

“There was a big difference when we went on probation,” says Barbara Baier, attendance coordinator at Flower Vocational, whose enrollment declined 26 percent between October 1997 and May 1998. “[Before] we wouldn’t drop anybody because we are such a small school. Our attendance percentage was terrible. Now we do it more than we did. There was a lot of pressure on us to improve our attendance.”

“What we have found is those kids who are missing 20 days are the ones that drag your test scores down, that destroy your school,” says David Meegan, assistant principal at Orr, where midyear enrollment declines have hovered around 15 percent for each of the last five years. “The school is penalized statistically for those kids. We want quality more than quantity. If that means removing dead weight, we will remove dead weight.”

Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas says high schools are simply clearing their rolls of chronic truants. “Basically, the schools were carrying kids who were not showing up, who were not there,” he told the City Council Education Committee in April.

However, reports from alternative schools for dropouts indicate some of the dropped students want to be in school.

“My office here in Chicago is getting a tremendous number of calls from persons who dropped out of school,” Bob Matthews, regional vice president of Career Works, Inc., reported at an April 1998 meeting of alternative schools for dropouts, according to the minutes. At the time, he said, Career Works had a waiting list of 300 students for 50 slots.

Though alternative schools routinely receive inquiries from dropouts who have been out of school for months or even years, these calls appeared to have had a recent connection to CPS. “We specifically asked where they are getting our name from,” said Matthews, “and several of the persons said they were given a list by someone in the Chicago public school system and were told to call the different alternative schools.”

At the same meeting, Robert Saddler, a former CPS administrator who now serves as the charter’s vice president, offered his own theory to explain the increase, based on conversations with principals. “Youngsters that for whatever reason the school has decided are not test ready—rather than keep the youngsters on the roll, you release them. … So I know it’s at least happening at the school level, and it’s happening a lot,” he said.

CPS data show that the number of high school students absent 70 or more days has dropped more than 50 percent since 1996—to 3,103 from 7,106. However, it’s unclear how much of that decrease is due to truancy prevention and how much is due to schools dropping students for excessive absences.

“The incentives … certainly don’t lead schools to try and recapture truant kids,” says G. Alfred Hess, Jr., a Northwestern University professor who is studying the impact of probation, reconstitution and redesign on Chicago’s public high schools.

New drop policy

In each of the past two years, the School Board expanded the boundaries for dropping students. In September 1997, it adopted a policy allowing schools to drop any student with a total of 40 unexcused absences. Previously, schools were permitted to drop students only if they had a string of 20 consecutive absences.

In September 1998, the board adopted a policy saying that students “will not be promoted” if they have 20 or more unexcused absences. The policy does not say the 20 days must be consecutive.

“We attended a meeting [last fall] at the region a couple of months ago. We were told that those days do not have to be consecutive any longer,” says Linda Carruthers, attendance coordinator at Corliss High, whose midyear enrollment decline generally has been in the low teens. As she recalled the meeting, someone from the region said 20 consecutive absences were required to drop a student but “someone from 39th street” countered that “just 20 unexcused absences” were all that was required.

“If you miss 20 days, any 20 days,” is how Alice Montgomery, attendance coordinator at Collins High, interprets board policy.”If a kid is at 20 or almost 20 and he starts coming back, we leave it alone,” she adds. “We try not to be too punitive.” Last school year, Collins’s enrollment dropped 22 percent between October and May, seventh highest in the city; the previous year, the drop was 14 percent.

“It doesn’t have to be [consecutive absences],” agrees William Harvey, director of attendance at Crane High. Harvey’s bottom line: “If a child is over 16, he doesn’t have to be re-enrolled if we don’t want him.” Crane’s midyear enrollment loss has been erratic, bouncing as high as 17 percent (last year) and as low as zero.

In 1985, Hess described Chicago’s public high schools as “functioning under an operative policy of educational triage.”

Today, he says that while triage still exists, the board’s efforts to “redesign” high schools may yet change the situation. “This is the first serious policy effort anybody has proposed to reverse the prior trend. How effective it’ll be, we have to wait and see.”

Editor’s note: Chicago’s state school report card shows an annual dropout rate of 15.8 percent for 1997-98, instead of the 17.5 calculated by the Illinois State Board of Education. While the ISBE rate includes data for all CPS schools, the report card rate excludes data from a number of schools for special student populations— e.g. board-sponsored alternative programs like Urban Youth—which are not part of the report card program. These schools tend to have more dropouts.