For the Record: Steep rise in chronic absences, truancy

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More children were chronically truant or absent at three of every four elementary schools in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to just two years earlier, according to district data obtained by Catalyst Chicago.

Click here to see our analysis of the data.

Overall, chronic absenteeism rose at 80 percent of elementary schools during the three-year time period.

Last month, Catalyst reported on internal Chicago Public Schools data showing that chronic absenteeism and chronic truancy were up overall in the elementary grades. But officials did not provide the data on a school-by-school level until June 3, after Catalyst asked the Office of the Illinois Attorney General to review the district’s stalled response to a Freedom of Information Act public records request first made in March. 

The increase was especially evident at nearly three dozen schools that saw chronic absences increase by 10 percentage points or more in the three-year period. These include some of the schools that closed last year, such as Paderewski (from 18 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2013) and Attucks (from 8 percent to 28 percent). At the same time, some of the schools that closed last year saw a decline in chronic absenteeism, including Songhai and Lawrence.

Chronic truancy, meanwhile, went up at 74 percent of elementary schools. Most of these schools saw increases of more than 10 percentage points, but several experienced increases higher than 30 percentage points. These include Woodson South, O’Keeffe, Caldwell and Paderewski.

Students are considered “chronically truant” after missing at least nine days in a school year without a valid excuse. “Chronically absent” students, meanwhile, have missed at least 18 school days, either excused or unexcused.

On the flip side, fewer high school students skipped class or were absent in the 2012-2013 school year, when compared with two years earlier.

Catalyst’s analysis did not show any clear trend or strong correlation between high truancy or absenteeism, and other factors such as the number of homeless students, suspension and expulsion rates, or school closures. Still, family problems, illness, school discipline and other circumstances may contribute to students missing school.

CPS officials said they were still trying to get a handle on why so many more children were chronically absent and truant at elementary schools.

In a statement, CPS officials said their new strategies for reducing chronic truancy and absenteeism attempt “to respond to the root causes of why students are absent (e.g., unclear school expectations, punitive school discipline practices, academic struggles, health concerns, challenges at home, etc.)”

The CPS statement also explains that the strategy “is a shift from years past when there was a heavier focus on truancy officers who could knock on doors and bring students back to school, but were unable to adequately address the root causes of students’ absences.” Coincidentally, WBEZ’s Curious City recently reported on the history of truancy officers in CPS.

CPS officials say that new data tools will help schools monitor absence trends, while the district will provide additional funding support – including mentors and after-school programing—for schools with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism and truancy.

A state-appointed task force is now looking at the problem of chronic truancy in Chicago Public Schools. The group, which was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation on chronic truancy, next meets at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 19, in Room 2-025 of the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph Street.