‘Record high’ attendance a figment

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Last year, students at Robeson High School in Englewood had one of the district’s worst attendance rates. But somehow, on the first day of school this year, attendance was more than perfect.

This unlikely phenomenon is the result of how Chicago Public Schools calculates first-day attendance. Instead of counting the number of students who actually show up out of those who were assigned or enrolled to a school, the district compares them to enrollment estimates made in February.

No-shows do not count against a school’s attendance at all.

Enrollment estimates this year were too low—by a margin of at least one classroom—for 54 percent of the district’s schools, and too high for 11 percent, according to a Catalyst analysis of school-by-school enrollment data. The rest were within range.

For a variety of reasons, early estimates more accurately predict enrollment in elementary schools, magnets and schools with selective admissions. They are less accurate, however, for neighborhood high schools.

At Robeson, for instance, early estimates predicted 1,197 students. When more than 1,400 showed up on the first day, the district’s official attendance rate was 117 percent.


WHY THIS MATTERS

• CPS’ record first-day attendance is the result of comparing the number of students who showed up with estimates made six months in advance.
• First day no-shows are not marked as absent—they’re not counted at all.
• Beyond their own conscience, principals have little incentive and few resources to track down no-shows and get them into school.


James Breashears, Robeson’s former principal who now serves as an advisor to his successor, shrugs off the Englewood school’s over-the-top Day One attendance as a “fairytale.” Rather, his sights are set on staffing. “What I’m concerned about is that we are down teachers.”

That’s the dilemma for many schools like Robeson, where low enrollment estimates mean too few teachers and lost instructional time as students are shuttled between classrooms for weeks, sometimes months, until additional staff are brought on board. Finding good teachers after school starts can be a challenge.

“I get to pick from the crumbs,” says one elementary school principal, who tried to make a case to hire extra teachers over the summer but didn’t get approval to move forward until last week. Until these posts are filled, 2nd- and 7th-grade classes at his school will be severely overcrowded.

At high schools, the way CPS uses attendance forecasts can have especially sharp consequences. In recent years, CPS has invested millions of dollars to improve high school academic programs at some of the worst schools. But chronic problems with attendance, unfilled teacher positions and students who arrive weeks or even months late undermine the effort by pushing lesson plans weeks behind schedule. (See related story here.)

These issues can be particularly harmful to freshmen, who are making an academic transition that researchers say is crucial to their future success. The Consortium for Chicago School Research is currently studying 9th-graders’ experiences during the first few weeks of high school to find out how it impacts them for the rest of the school year.

For sophomores, juniors and seniors teetering on the edge of dropping out, the practice of taking no-shows off the books and the extent to which principals and their staff pursue these students could make a difference. 

To his credit, Schools CEO Arne Duncan noted at a Sept. 3 press conference that getting students into classes on the first day and every day is important. On the Saturday following the first week of school, Duncan joined the principal of Clemente High School on a door-to-door mission in Humboldt Park to find students who had not yet made it to school. 

Principals are responsible for tracking down no-shows, either by sending community representatives to visit homes or by going themselves. However, school officials could not point to incentives a principal would have to go after these students, except their own desire for every child to be educated.

Donald Moore, executive director from Designs for Change, says there’s actually a disincentive:  Principals are reluctant to track down students who are low-performers and who have already shown they’re likely to be truants. 

“Once they are off the rolls, they are someone else’s problem,” Moore says.

Too many students, too few teachers

Principal Gerald Morrow of Robeson is more concerned about getting enough teachers for the ones who did arrive–on the first day of class, 200 more students than the district estimated.  That means several classes were overfilled, or without teachers at all.

It took more than four weeks for the district to audit Robeson’s attendance, and justify Morrow’s requests for extra staff. After that, it takes time to get the hires on board. 

“My students cannot afford to lose that time. Who is responsible? That is all I want to know.” Many good teachers are already scooped up by now, he says, and Robeson may have to fill posts with teachers who do not have the necessary subject area expertise.

Meanwhile, throughout the first month of school, as many as 200 more students will straggle in. So many students showed up over the first three weeks that Morrow kept all his counselors in the front hallway to do registrations.

“Today, three more came,” Morrow said on Sept. 23.

District officials are aware of volatile enrollment at neighborhood high schools. Family or student mobility is part of the cause, but more significant is the district’s high school admissions process, which leaves parents to navigate on their own a complex web of magnet, selective, charter and neighborhood schools that each have their own lotteries, attendance boundaries and applications.

Last year, CPS adopted a student assignment system that was supposed to stem creeping freshman enrollment by requiring all students to declare where they were going to high school by April 25 or be assigned a school. Eighth-graders were also given a day off to visit their new schools and they were encouraged to sign up for a three-week summer orientation session. About 16,000 did. (See related story here.)

Principal Thomas Trotter of Hyde Park High School says the new system allowed him to prepare and hand out class schedules to freshmen on the Saturday before school started—an improvement from the previous year. Still, Trotter was down two teachers at the beginning of the year.

Ditto for Fenger High School on the far South Side, where Principal William Johnson says first day logistics went smoothly for students who showed up. Still, freshman classrooms were understaffed because enrollment was underestimated at 252, even though 414 8th-graders were later assigned to the school. Of those, 329 showed up on the first day.

Johnson says he was able to make do by shifting teachers around from other grades where enrollment was overestimated.

Funding determined over three months

Duncan has noted that in 2000, the year before he became CEO, about one in four students missed the first day of school, and that his campaign has improved the district’s showing by 17 percent.

However, the practice of basing first-day attendance on early enrollment estimates has been in use for about five years, according to James Dispensa, head of Demographics and Planning for CPS. Before that, Dispensa says he does not know how first-day attendance rates were determined.

Financial penalties and benefits can be tied to first day attendance, but not as directly as school officials would have people believe. According to CPS, this year’s first-day attendance rate would result in additional general state aid.

But a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education says funding for school districts, including Chicago, is based on the average number of students in attendance over the three months with the best results, not to a single day. 

Last year, for instance, CPS reported attendance figures for the months of September, October and November, says spokesman Matt Vanover.

With the first day of school rates not being intertwined with funding, no other school districts make such hay out of first day attendance rates, says Vanover.

Principals in Joliet’s high school District 204 have discretion over who is counted as absent, says Supt. Paul Swanstrom. Like Chicago, schools may not count a student who misses the first day until that student shows up.

Counting first day no-shows would penalize districts for students who move or decide to attend private or parochial schools. But at some point before a student is erased from the rolls, Swanstrom says he expects the school staff to try and contact the parents and find out what happened.

This year, Chicago had political reasons for pushing first-day attendance. Rev. James Meeks, pastor of the mammoth Salem Baptist church in Roseland, led a boycott on the first day of school to protest inequities in school funding. Busloads of students and their parents traveled to New Trier High School in north suburban Winnetka to try enrolling in the well-funded school.

There is no official count of how many students participated in the boycott, which lasted two days. Duncan’s declaration of record attendance speaks against much participation; Meeks claims he often runs into parents who say they kept their children home.

But Meeks says he is skeptical about the district’s attendance claims.

“That is where the trust is broken,” he says.