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Illinois Task Force Studies Chicago Absenteeism

By Denisa Superville. Cross-posted from the District Dossier blog.

Bring back truancy officers.  Change how school districts report average daily attendance. Upgrade data systems to better track absentee students. Conduct aggressive outreach to parents, families, and communities. Enact better support mechanisms for homeless and other at-risk students. Revise state laws and language on absenteeism.

Those were among the many recommendations returned this week by a state task force on truancy and absenteeism in Chicago Public Schools. The group was convened after a Chicago Tribune series, "An Empty-Desk Epidemic," which laid bare the breadth of the problem in Chicago Public Schools.

The 150-page report said that the Chicago Public Schools' efforts to curb absenteeism fell short, and the consequences of failing to address the problem were dire for students.

From the report:

"Chronic absenteeism and truancy have consequences of untold proportions. 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. The junior high student who fails to show up is prey to the street gang that will give him what he will perceive to be a community of acceptance and the means to self-esteem. The street gang member will likely become a statistic in the criminal justice system. The young girl who is expected to care for her siblings instead of attending school will soon have her own children to care for. Not only will many of these children fall victim to the same societal ills that plagued their parents, their ability to overcome the obstacles that lay in between them and a full, productive life will seem insurmountable."

The document contains broad recommendations for prevention, for early intervention, for enhanced collection and deployment of data, and for outreach. 

The task force recommends creating a permanent commission focused on addressing truancy and absenteeism statewide and monitoring progress in Chicago Public Schools; redefining absenteeism on the state level; and creating a permanent special commission to address the special needs student population.

It also calls for the state to review its statutes on daily student attendance, which now ask  the district to look at a student's three best months. The task force suggests looking at both a student's three best and three worst months in terms of attendance, which would give a more accurate representation of the student's attendance during the year.

Among other recommendations for the Chicago Public Schools:

 A huge focus on data collection and dissemination.  The task force called for accurate, easily disaggregated, and detailed data on attendance from the Chicago school system that can be used to guide prevention and intervention strategies.  Data collection should include barriers to attendance, demographic information, students' disciplinary histories, and parental involvement with the schools. The information should be available in a central database and, where possible, shared with parents.

On prevention:

It called for hiring and training attendance officers whose jobs it would be to reach out to students with attendance issues, investigate the causes, and assist the families in reducing those barriers. It proposed aggressive outreach to parents and public awareness campaigns on the importance of daily attendance. Community and comprehensive family engagement strategies were also touted as key.

On intervention:

It recommended targeted interventions directed at different groups at  critical junctures in their school careers, such as 9th grade and at kindergarten.  It called for the strengthening of the district's 9th Grade On-Track program, which was touted earlier this year as one of the reasons for an increase in the system's graduation rate.

Chicago Public Schools told the Tribune that the district was already working on some report's recommendations.

Aarti Dhupelia, the district's chief officer for college and career success, told the paper that the district had already started giving principals real-time attendance data and that it planned to start providing them with "watch lists" of students who were missing school.

It also plans to emulate public awareness campaigns in places like New York City and Baltimore to emphasize the importance of attendance.

But truancy officers, who were let go during 1992 budget cuts, are not likely to return to the schools because of questions about their costs and effectiveness, she said. 

"We believe that part of the work is bringing students back who are chronically truant or absent, but a much bigger part of the work is to keep them coming to school and addressing whatever those root-cause needs are," Dhupelia told the paper.

The 40-member task force, comprised of representatives from Chicago Public Schools, the legislature, law enforcement, the state board of education, department of children and family services, and community groups, worked over a period of eight months.

The task force convened after the Chicago Tribune series. According to the series, 20 percent of black students missed at least four weeks of school during the 2010-2011 school year. And students with disabilities were absent at a higher rate than their peers, according to the document.

For a full list of recommendations and strategies contained in the report, you can read the entire document here: Truancy in CPS Final Report (7-31-2014).pdf

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