Absenteeism and truancy down, but not at welcoming schools

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The spike in chronic truancy and absenteeism that CPS elementary schools experienced in the 2012-2013 school year was somewhat reversed last year, new preliminary data show. But welcoming schools that took in most of the children displaced by school closings on average saw a slight increase in chronic truancy and held steady when it came to chronic absences.

See the data

And despite the overall year-to-year improvements, chronic truancy remains higher in every grade,  compared to the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years. Chronic absenteeism, meanwhile, has barely budged when compared to those two years. (Click here to see the data on chronic truancy and chronic absenteeism.)

Community activists said they weren’t surprised that welcoming schools didn’t see the same kinds of improvements as other schools.

“What do you expect, it’s the distance and the new environment,” said Gloria Harris, a parent trainer at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI). “Somebody comes along and says, ‘we have to take your children and put them here.’ Your kids are not going to feel safe until they get used to that environment.”

CPS officials did not dispute Catalyst’s analysis, but said that it was unfair to compare welcoming schools with other district-run schools because the welcoming schools have substantially different student bodies. Further, most new students came from schools with higher-than-average rates of truancy and absences.

(See an accompanying story on what CPS is doing to reduce chronic truancy and absenteeism here.)

Chronic truancy is defined as missing nine or more days of school without a valid excuse; chronic absenteeism, meanwhile, means missing at least 18 school days with or without a valid excuse.

Catalyst’s findings come as a state-appointed task force last week issued a set of non-binding recommendations for how Chicago can fix its “epidemic” of empty desks in elementary schools. The task force, which was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation into the issue, suggests a variety of solutions that range from improved data collection and the hiring of attendance coordinators at struggling schools, to a public awareness campaign and the creation of a permanent state-wide task force on truancy.

 “Chronic absenteeism and truancy have consequences of untold proportions,” according to the task force’s report. “Any student who is not in school is not learning. The kindergarten student who is not in school is acquiring a habit that will affect future school attendance.”

 CPS shared preliminary district-wide data from the 2013-14 school year at the final meeting, in July, of Task Force on Truancy in Chicago Public Schools. CPS has not responded to a Catalyst request for the corresponding school-level data, but a community organization that obtained it separately from the district provided a copy.

 Catalyst analyzed the date a variety of ways to see both what happened this past school year, and what could have caused the spike in truancy and absenteeism in 2012-2013:

At welcoming schools:

— Those schools did not see the reductions in chronic truancy and absenteeism that were seen at other district-run schools last year.  In fact, from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year, chronic truancy increased at welcoming schools, from about 24.6 percent to 25.4 percent. At all other schools, chronic truancy fell from about 16.8 percent to 14.3 percent.

— Chronic absenteeism barely changed from one year to the next, dropping slightly from 15.9 percent to 15.3 percent. Chronic absenteeism fell more at non-welcoming schools, from 14.6 percent to 11.6 percent.

At schools threatened with closure:

The data from 2012-2013 shows that schools that operated under the threat of closure that year saw higher increases on average than other schools – regardless of whether they ultimately shut down. Schools on a list of nearly 130 schools that CPS considered closing saw chronic truancy rates jump from about 20 percent to nearly 29 percent that year. Meanwhile, schools that were never on that list to begin with saw a smaller increase from about 10 percent to 15 percent.

The data are in line with findings from a 2009 study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research Consortium on how the most precarious time for students of closed schools.

“Announcements about upcoming CPS school closings typically were made in January—about six months prior to the actual closings of schools and a few months before students took annual achievement tests,” according to the report. “These announcements often caused significant angst for students, parents, teachers, and other community members, and the disruption may have hindered student learning.”

At schools with increases in suspensions:

While the district hasn’t completely pinpointed what triggered the increase in chronic truancy and absenteeism in the 2012-2013 school year, officials say a parallel increase in suspensions and expulsions could be partly to blame, since they take students out of school.

The data Catalyst analyzed shows that most of the 25 elementary schools with the biggest increases in out-of-school suspensions in the 2012-2013 school year also posted increases in chronic absenteeism and chronic truancy.

“The discipline issues were also getting worse at the elementary level in tandem with the [chronic truancy and absenteeism],” said Aarti Dhupelia, CPS’s chief officer of college and career success, who also oversees truancy and absenteeism issues, in a recent phone interview.

 CPS has not yet released complete discipline data from this past school year. Charter schools are not included in this analysis because the suspension data is incomplete.

At all schools:

Elementary schools with predominantly black and poor student populations continue to have the highest chronic truancy and absenteeism rates. On average, 23 percent of students were considered chronically truant at schools where most of the student body is black. Meanwhile, the overall average for all elementary schools was about 15 percent.

Schools where at least 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch reported an average chronic truancy rate of nearly 19 percent. At schools with fewer than two-thirds of low-income students, only 6 percent were considered chronically truant.

The findings are in line with previous research by another Consortium study on chronic absences in preschool. The 2013 report found that African-American students were almost twice as likely to miss class as other students. The report cited children’s health as the biggest factor, followed by logistical obstacles such as limited transportation or a sick relative.

A better picture overall

Overall, the district did post improvements in chronic truancy and absenteeism at every grade level last year, when compared with the previous year.

“CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett really announced [improving attendance] as a key priority for the district going into this past school year,” Dhupelia said. “And it’s not just saying it’s a priority. There were some intentional strategies that that were piloted this past year, a few things we really made traction on.”

District officials credited the improvements to a new emphasis on attendance and a series of strategies piloted in this past 2013-14 school year, including targeted funds for struggling schools, the production of monthly data reports tailored to individual schools, and an emphasis on restorative justice programs as an alternative to suspensions or expulsions.

CPS first shared details on some of the district’s pilot strategies during the truancy task force’s June meeting. The CPS draft strategic plan shared that day generated some skepticism among several task force members. (See a copy of the district’s draft plan.)

 “I truly believe this plan was created only in relation to the task force,” said Sarah Hainds, a researcher for the Chicago Teachers Union who sits on the task force. “They want to look like they’re proactive, ahead of the game. They came up with this plan to kind of stave off any kind of mandated policies from the state level.”

Dhupelia, who also sits on the task force, said she and the district took the group’s work very seriously, and implemented some of the research and ideas that were generated during the monthly meetings into the district’s own strategic plan.

“It wasn’t something we popped up at the last minute and said, ‘Hey, we’re done,’” she said. “This is a continuously improving effort. We certainly have a long way to go. I know we can get better. But it would not have made sense to wait; our kids cannot wait.”