Ditching has domino effect

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Farragut High

Photo by Jason Reblando

Farragut High

Shenice began cutting classes at Tilden High in New City shortly after Christmas break last year. She can’t think of a reason other than “I just got bored.” The 15-year-old failed four classes that semester, greatly boosting the chances she would not graduate on time.

Cutting was easy at Tilden. Shenice often skipped her first-period reading class, she says, and then ditched more classes after lunch, making her escape through a back door. “Security guards are on each floor, but most of them aren’t by a door,” she explains. Only one teacher ever called home about her incessant cutting, she says.

While Tilden has one of the city’s worst records for class cutting, Catalyst reporting indicates that many high schools lack the organization, staff and sense of urgency needed to get kids to class.

The school district launched a truancy initiative in 2003, but it addressed only full-day absences, not class cutting. And it left the expense of dealing with both problems largely to schools. Schools don’t even get an attendance clerk, let alone staff to track down missing students. “Who do they expect is going to do all this if they don’t give you the positions?” asks Wilfredo Ortiz, principal of Gage Park High School.

During the spring semester of 2004, nearly a third of freshmen—32 percent—missed at least two weeks of school, and 16 percent missed more than a month, according to CPS data analyzed by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

But full-day absences are only part of the problem. When part-day absences, including class-cutting, are figured in, nearly half of freshmen—49 percent—missed more than two weeks of school in a major subject, and nearly a third—29 percent—missed more than a month, the Consortium reports.

After rising substantially since the mid-1990s, official high school attendance leveled off three years ago at about 86 percent.

“Failure rate, dropout rate, graduation rate—all are tied to attendance,” observes Bill Gerstein, principal of the School of Entrepreneurship on the South Shore campus.

Consortium research backs him up. For example, in spring 2004, only 5 percent of freshmen with perfect attendance in math class failed the subject, the Consortium found. The failure rate rose to 36 percent for kids who skipped two to four weeks of math, and to 80 percent for kids who missed more than four weeks.

Failed classes lead, in turn, to delayed graduation. In one recent study, the Consortium found that freshmen who failed just two semesters of a core subject—and not necessarily the same one—cut their chances of graduating on time to 44 percent.

Truancy also has financial consequences for the district, which receives state funding based on average daily attendance. For every 1 percentage point increase, CPS stands to gain $18 million, district officials say. In 2004-05, CPS attendance was 92 percent—86 percent in high schools—compared to a state average of 94 percent.

Even kids who skip a single class can drain money from the district. Students must be present for 300 instructional minutes for their presence to count as a full day of attendance, rather than a half day or an absence. If the typical student misses one class, he dips below 300.

Cutting is easy

At many high schools, cutting is easy, kids say. Where cafeterias aren’t cleared between periods, students linger to chat with friends. Where security is lax or insufficient, they stroll the hallways or slip into the library or lunchroom. Mostly they just walk out the door. “[It’s] not hard at all,” says Aschalay Green, a sophomore at Harlan High.

The city’s fire code bars schools from locking exits from the inside, and most schools have too many to cover with security guards. (Crane High School, for example, has more than 40.) Video cameras aren’t always a deterrent. “I put a hood on,” one boy explains.

CPS is urging schools to put alarms on exits, at the cost of about $110 each, but many have not done so, according to Reginald Williams, the district’s associate director of safety and security. “That’s the best way to insure that students don’t get out.”

At some schools, the response to ditching a class is delayed, inconsistent or non-existent, students say. Some teachers call home, others don’t. “One of my teachers told me she was glad I cut,” reports a sophomore boy at Tilden who failed algebra last year. “She said she was tired that day.”

Kids who say they don’t cut class point to long-term goals as reasons. Kira White, a sophomore at the School of Entrepreneurship, who plans on becoming a mortician, says she wants “to get my education and be smart.”

But with no short-term consequences for cutting, some students don’t think about the long term. “It catches up with you,” says Patricia Todd, a sophomore at Dunbar. “Your momma comes up and sees your report card,” she says, “And you’re like, ‘Dang!”

When kids cut, it’s important for schools to intervene quickly, says Melissa Roderick, a director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “A kid doesn’t become a chronic skipper the first time they skip. They become chronic when they go back to class and they’re way behind.”

Ditching patterns

Kids cut for various reasons, but most fall into three categories, according to Roderick, who was the principal investigator in a 1997 Consortium study on truancy in CPS. Each category requires a different approach, she says.

Kids who cut because they are struggling and need extra help may be reluctant to admit it, her research found. “It takes a little investigative work” to ferret out that reason, she says. When questioned, some such students first would say simply that they didn’t feel like going to class.

Those who arrive late repeatedly need a clear strategy for getting to school on time. “Someone has to sit down with the kid and solve the problem. Someone has to have a conversation with the family.”

And those who cut for trivial reasons need a consequence, like an after-school study hall. “You just missed class so you have to do extra work.”

Although these interventions seem straightforward, they are not easily established in a high school where kids collectively rack up hundreds of cuts per week, Roderick notes. A school needs an organized system for identifying cutters, a strategy for keeping parent contact information updated and someone, like a counselor, to intervene and figure out what to do. “Somebody has got to be backing up the teachers,” she insists. “It takes a commitment by the [whole] building to say we’re going to do the hard work to make sure kids are in class.”

That commitment appears to be lacking at some schools. At Chicago Vocational Career Academy, for example, cutting is rampant, according to data from spring 2004. Overall, 72 percent of freshmen missed more than two weeks in at least one core subject that semester. Even higher achievers cut. For example, freshmen who entered Chicago Vocational reading above grade level missed classes at a higher rate than did freshmen citywide whose reading scores were in the bottom quartile.

When students miss class at Chicago Vocational, teachers are expected to call parents. But those calls often don’t get made, according to Victor Harbison, who taught social studies at the school for more than five years before becoming a principal intern this fall at Jones College Prep. Only a few teachers have phones set aside for their use; the rest must borrow one from a counselor, another teacher or a secretary, “who says after awhile, ‘I need that phone,'” Harbison says.

Further, it’s difficult for teachers to know who is cutting and who is home sick, Harbison explains. On any given day, 40 of his 115 students might have been missing. The attendance office would issue teachers a list of students who were absent from school to compare with class attendance. But the list was long and not in alphabetical order. Teachers often neglected the chore, according to Harbison, and nobody enforced it. “No one tracked cuts the entire time I was there,” he says.

The principal of Chicago Vocational, Marie Miles, declined to comment on her school’s attendance policies.

CPS has promoted a software package that would allow teachers to enter class attendance directly into a computer so that cuts and absences can be tracked easily. Two-thirds of schools now have the software, but many lack computers or internet access in the classrooms, according to CPS spokesman Tim Tuten.

Chicago Vocational, for one, tried online attendance briefly after purchasing a laptop computer for every teacher, but teachers were reluctant to try it, and the initiative was dropped.

Chicago Vocational does have an in-school detention room for students caught cutting in the hallway, but otherwise, there are no consequences, according to a staff person who asked not to be identified. The school can’t afford to pay teachers to monitor after-school or Saturday detention, the staffer reports.

In contrast, Juarez High had a class absentee rate that was below the district average even though it is a low-income, neighborhood school that, unlike Chicago Vocational, has no special admission requirements. Since the late 1990s, teachers there have taken attendance directly on a computer. When a student cuts class, a Saturday detention slip automatically prints out in the office, and parents are called, according to Assistant Principal Juan Ocon. Teacher volunteers staff Saturday detention and provide tutoring.

Before this school year, students who failed to show up for three detentions were suspended unless a conference with their parents and a counselor turned them around. To keep such students from missing still more school, Juarez now offers an alternative: Parents can shadow their children for one to three days, depending on the severity of the offense. That gives parents a chance to see why their kids cut and, therefore, some insight into how to address the problem.

Ocon says he has gotten responses such as, “I thought my son is a leader, but I see he just follows his friends around. He’ll see a group of friends and gravitate towards them instead of class.”

Given a chance to shadow, only one out of 20 parents has turned him down, Ocon reports. And the effort has curbed cutting, he says. “Students don’t want their parents following them around. For some, it works temporarily. For others it just works.”

In a follow-up conference, Ocon asks parents how the school can improve. “Sometimes they do find legitimate weaknesses in the system.”

Teachers sometimes the problem

Schools need to consider that, at times, the teacher is part of the problem, says the Consortium’s Roderick. “If a whole bunch of kids are skipping a class, the teacher clearly needs help,” either with classroom management or “figuring out how to engage kids.”

At Chicago Vocational, Harbison says, he knew teachers who were happy when certain disruptive kids missed class. “If you don’t have a lot of skills in classroom management, you weren’t in a big hurry to urge them to please come back.”

Students who are less motivated by long-term educational goals are more dependent on teachers to help them stay focused.

Louella Maggiefield, a junior at Gage Park High, repeatedly cut two classes last year because she didn’t understand the work. One teacher never spoke to her, she says, but the other lured her back. “She told me if I started coming, she was willing to help me.”

Lequita Davis, a sophomore at Chicago Discovery, says she cut most of her afternoon classes early last year to be with friends. Then she showed up one day at her environmental science class. “I went a few times, and it was fun. I like doing hands-on experiments.” After that, she even decided to endure some boring “sit there, listen to the teacher talk all day” classes to make it to that eighth-period class.

Turning kids around

Many reformed class-cutters say that fear of failing a class convinced them to stop. Others say only time and maturity turned them around. “A lot of people grow up and get responsible,” says a junior on the Bowen campus, who said that parental pressure, detention and suspension didn’t deter him from avoiding class last year.

Sometimes parents solve the problem. They did for Marshall Coleman, a junior at the Bowen Environmental Studies Team school, who says his parents kept on him. “You get tired of hearing it, so don’t cut.”

For Derell Gowers, a senior at the School of Entrepreneurship, it was a counselor who sat him down and explained that he needed every remaining credit to graduate.

For Mario Chaney, a junior at Dunbar, it was the Spanish teacher who called every night he cut the class after his lunch period. “It let me know that the teacher cared about me getting an education. I got closer and closer to the teacher and started doing extra work.”

Shenice, the Tilden freshman who cut most of her classes last year, says she’s trying harder her second time through 9th grade. “I got a boyfriend that’s on my back,” she explains.

But she still thinks it’s too easy to get away with cutting. “They don’t care,” she says of her school. Does she wish they did? She pauses to consider, then quietly nods, yes.

Intern Tariq Ahmad contributed to this report

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or e-mail duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.