One more problem with Chicago schools’ first-day attendance claim

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CPS issued a press release last week touting once again an all-time high for first- day attendance of 94.1 percent. But the release didn’t explain that the calculation included all students in attendance on Sept. 8, even if they were in one of the 132 Track E schools whose first day was Aug. 10. If Aug. 10 attendance had been used for Track E schools, the percentage would have dropped:  Only about 81 percent of the students at Track E schools were in attendance on their day one, according to Catalyst Chicago’s analysis of school-by-school data.

CPS issued a press release last week touting once again an all-time high for first- day attendance of 94.1 percent. But the release didn’t explain that the calculation included all students in attendance on Sept. 8, even if they were in one of the 132 Track E schools whose first day was Aug. 10.

If Aug. 10 attendance had been used for Track E schools, the percentage would have dropped:  Only about 81 percent of the students at Track E schools were in attendance on their day one, according to Catalyst Chicago’s analysis of school-by-school data. 

Considering that the majority of these schools were new to Track E this year, that number is not surprising.

In fact, district officials were expecting only about 84 percent of their students to attend on the first day, says Monique Bond, CPS spokeswoman.

“The fact of the matter is that it is a pretty high percent,” she says. “Some parents possibly didn’t realize that their school had changed.”

This was the case at Henson Elementary in North Lawndale, which had the worst day-one attendance of all Track E schools. Henson was down more than 166 students on Aug. 10—56 percent of the expected population.

Henson Principal Robert Pales says he mentioned the schedule in every communication he had last year with parents, whether verbal or in writing. Some parents who did not abide by it also are in the habit of skipping report card pickup day and other school activities, he says.

But district officials stepped in and helped school administrators call parents and knock on doors. Attendance quickly shot up and has hovered at about 90 percent since about Aug. 17, he says.

First- day attendance became a big deal in CPS when Arne Duncan was CEO.  At numerous press conferences, Duncan pointed out that before he took over, only one in four students came to school on the first day, and that he was able to increase that attendance by 17 percent.

Duncan noted that the first day is important because it sets the tone for the year and teachers lay out expectations and rules.

Last year, Duncan boasted a 93.7 percent first-day attendance rate. But Catalyst questioned the calculation, noting that it used projections made the preceding February as the basis of comparison. These projections are often off. Further, the calculation did not account for the late arrival of hundreds of students at some schools. And most charter schools didn’t report their first-day attendance so, in the absence of information, district officials assumed 100 percent of their students showed up.

Duncan also made a financial case for first-day attendance, noting that every additional percentage point of attendance generates an extra $18 million from the state. However, it is not quite right to tie all that money to first-day attendance.  In the state school funding formula, every day counts the same. Funding is based on the average number of students in attendance over the three months with the best results.

This year’s press release did not claim any financial benefit, but rather stressed the critical importance that children come to school.