Schools skeptical that new policy will curb dropouts

Print More
Chart: Blacks least likely to graduate

Chart: Blacks least likely to graduate

The School Board’s new dropout policy grabbed headlines because of its requirement that students and their parents sign a consent form that spells out the likely consequences of their decision, such as fewer job opportunities and a greater chance of imprisonment.

However, more important to advocates, the policy takes aim at the chronic “pushout” problem caused by the longstanding practice of dropping students who have too many absences. That practice, common in urban school districts nationwide, is now prohibited. “Schools are moving students out, which we absolutely don’t want to happen,” says Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan.

Even so, some school personnel doubt the new policy, or any policy, will have much impact.

Lynne Rone, who oversees attendance at Calumet High School, says, “If a child is not going to come, he is not going to come whether he drops out formally or just doesn’t come. The policy doesn’t matter.”

Wilfredo Ortiz, former director of high school programs and current principal of Gage Park High School, questions how the board will monitor whether schools comply with the new rules. Ortiz says counselors, a social worker and a psychologist at Gage Park all work with students who have attendance problems, and adds that he himself visits a home before dropping a student.

In some cases, calls home about truancy are unproductive, Ortiz says. “The parent has already lost control. If the parent can’t get them to go to school, how can we?”

Community groups, however, are cautiously praising the policy. “CPS is admitting they have a push-out problem. That was unprecedented,” notes Bill Leavy, executive director of Greater West Town Community Development Project and leader of a coalition that has pressured the district to address the issue.

Here are the specific steps schools must follow:

Before dropping a student from enrollment, the school must refer the student and family to social service agencies that can help solve problems that may be contributing to the student’s truancy.

If truancy persists, the parent or guardian can be taken to court, a practice that the system rarely has used in the past.

If a school can’t locate a student, staff must call all emergency numbers, have someone visit the student’s last known address and fill out a CPS lost child report.

Schools cannot send students home for tardiness or dress code violations, and are encouraged to use alternatives to out-of-school suspension, including peer juries, to keep their students in school.

But activists also question how the board will enforce due process provisions that high schools have routinely ignored. State law requires schools to offer due process to dropouts who want to re-enroll, giving them the right to meet with a hearing officer, who will determine whether the student is eligible to re-enroll and can graduate by age 21. If so, the school must re-enroll the student.

The new policy states that parents and students must be informed of their right to return to school and to a due process appeal if that right is challenged. But the consent form makes no mention of either of those rights, raising the question of how the board will monitor whether the school has provided the information.

“I have several cases of students who have been de-enrolled. The parents have tried to get them back in. I’ve tried to get them back in. Most of the schools aren’t aware of the law of due process itself,” says Terrance Wallace, youth director for Westside Health Authority, an Austin-based nonprofit.

Leavy says he told board officials that they needed to train school staff to implement due process because “they’re gonna resist it.”

The new policy initially sparked loud protest when some activists complained that the first version, approved in January, would allow students who have reached the legal dropout age of 16—but who are not yet 18 and thus still minors—to drop out without their parents’ consent. The rewritten policy, passed at the February board meeting, closes that loophole and adds the consent form.

Extra eyes, ears to find truants

To augment the policy, CPS is funneling $1.7 million to nine social service agencies that will work with 36 high schools. The board did not choose schools based solely on poor attendance, however. “We selected some of the lowest attendance schools [but] we wanted to spread it out across the system,” says CPS spokeswoman Joi Mecks.

The social service agencies will counsel struggling students and their families, make sure they are connected to social services and add extra eyes, ears and feet on the ground to find and recover truants.

“When you sit down with the attendance people, they’re very well aware of who’s cutting and who’s not coming to school, but they can’t keep up with it.

There’s too many kids,” observes Phil Licata, a program manager at Youth Outreach, which contracted with CPS to work with truants at six far North Side high schools. “When you have 150 kids on your list of chronic truants, and you have to teach class on top of running the attendance office … it’s physically impossible.”

“The biggest challenge sometimes is just to nail down the parent, especially if you have a child who doesn’t want you to know how to [locate] them,” says Renee Joiner, vice president of human resources and community development for ChildServ, another contractor agency. “Sometimes a school might not even have an accurate address or phone number. Sometimes it takes three to four to five attempts to reach the parent before we even have a phone conversation with them.”

Leavy is hopeful but skeptical about how much the policy will change how schools operate. “I think they intend to [enforce the new policy], but I think there’s a pretty large disconnect between the intent of the front office, the needs of the public relations department and the life of a local school.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.