showing up

Colorado schools soon will be judged by a new measure: How many students are chronically absent

The mother was anxious when she arrived at Monte Vista Elementary School in southern Colorado to discuss her 7-year-old daughter’s absences and frequent late arrivals.

But there were no reprimands that day in the school library. Instead, during a meeting led by an outside facilitator, a school staff member started by saying, “Hey, we really love it when your daughter is here. She’s so full of energy and excitement.”

Soon, the mother was opening up about the problems that made it tough to get her child to school on time, or at all — her work demands, her boyfriend’s unreliable car and her fears about sending her young daughter alone on the half-mile walk to the bus stop on frigid winter days.

The mother left with a sense of relief and the beginnings of a carpool plan that would enlist neighboring families to drive the little girl to the bus stop on days her family couldn’t.

That meeting a few years ago was part of a four-year effort by the Monte Vista school district and a local nonprofit group to combat chronic absenteeism among students. It’s also the kind of program that more school districts around Colorado may adopt or expand with the state’s recent decision to use chronic absenteeism as one measure in its accountability system.

Chronic absences — when kids miss school 10 percent or more of the time — increases the likelihood kids won’t read well by the end of third grade, will be held back in later grades and will drop out of high school.

Colorado is one of more than a dozen states that will use chronic absenteeism as a measure of school and district quality in the education plans they’ll soon submit to the federal government. More specifically, Colorado will look at whether schools and districts are reducing chronic absenteeism among elementary- and middle-schoolers. At the high school level, the state will look at dropout rates.

Under the federal education law passed in 2015, states were no longer confined to academic measures such as test scores and graduation rates in their accountability systems. Instead, they could choose a non-academic measure, too. Commonly referred to as the “fifth indicator,” it won’t count as much as the four academic indicators, but advocates see it as a chance to take a more holistic view of school success.

Under Colorado’s accountability system, consistently poor-performing schools can face state intervention and consistently poor-performing districts can face the loss of accreditation.

Sue Fothergill, associate director of policy at the national initiative Attendance Works, said she’s heartened to see so many states include chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans.

She said reducing chronic absenteeism rates can be a daunting challenge, but making it a priority in the plans could push districts to shift resources to such efforts and galvanize community leaders to get involved.

Change possible

In Colorado, chronic absenteeism will be used for a year in the state’s plan and then may be replaced.

Dan Jorgensen, accountability support manager for the state education department, said chronic absenteeism could be retained as one component of the fifth indicator, but it will be up to a committee of education leaders to decide.

Lisa Escarcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives and a member of the committee that developed the state plan, said chronic absenteeism works well in the short term because the state already collects such data from school districts and it’s a serviceable proxy for school climate.

Still, she said members of the workgroup that considered the options had initially envisioned something a little different.

“I think they imagined having a fifth indicator that was broader in scope and reflected more the kinds of things around climate and culture of schools…a little bit more of a qualitative type of indicator,” she said.

Luke Yoder, executive director of the Alamosa-based Center for Restorative Programs, which works with local school districts to address chronic absenteeism, said including the indicator in the state accountability plan “on many levels … makes a ton of sense.”

Still, he worried it could cause some districts to fudge the numbers — sometimes an unintended consequence of new mandates.

Root of the problem

Rates of chronic absenteeism are all over the map in Colorado school districts.

In Douglas County, the rate is just 4 percent. It’s more than 30 percent in Pueblo 60 and Adams 14, according to 2013-14 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. (The state began collecting chronic absenteeism rates from school districts last spring, but those numbers haven’t been released publicly yet.)

Then there are tiny rural districts, such as Centennial in the San Luis Valley, where 47 percent of students are chronically absent.

But a grant-funded initiative begun this year in partnership with the Center for Restorative Programs could help the 215-student district bring down those numbers. It’s similar to the effort in the Monte Vista school district that led to the parent meeting in the elementary school library.

The idea is to intervene with families early on — usually after a student has just three absences — using a friendly, problem-solving approach.

“It’s an opportunity to start a conversation that’s much more of a bridge-building conversation instead of a scolding,” said Yoder, who led the meeting with the mother of the 7-year-old girl.

There are lots of reasons that student absences pile up and many have to do with poverty, including a lack of stable housing or reliable transportation. Parents may also have work shifts that conflict with school start times or lean on older children to stay home with younger siblings if the usual caregiver is sick or busy.

As kids get older, they may miss school because of academic, social or mental health problems, or because they’ve taken on jobs to help their families. Some kids also miss school because they’ve been suspended or expelled.

Advocates like Yoder say absenteeism is a complex problem that requires a non-punitive approach from schools.

“Too many of our school districts fall into the trap of waiting until it’s a real a problem and (they) file in court and drop the hammer on these families,” he said, referring to the truancy court system.

The gentler approach his organization has helped institute in Monte Vista, and is now working toward in Centennial, gets results, he said.

Since the effort started in Monte Vista, the proportion of students with 10 or more absences has dropped from 44 percent to 28 percent and the proportion of students with 20 or more absences has dropped from 17 percent to 6 percent.

Money troubles

While many Colorado districts say the issue of chronic absenteeism is on their radar, they note stagnating state funding has hurt efforts to address the issue.

Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for Greeley district, said there used to be school-based attendance liaisons whose job was to help monitor students who missed lots of school. But those positions were cut three years ago. Now, there are just two attendance liaisons for the 22,000-student district, so much of the burden has fallen back onto teachers and principals.

Chronic absenteeism was 19 percent in Greeley in 2013-14, according to the Office of Civil Rights data.

“It is a resource issue for us,” Myers said.

Escarcega, who until last year was a top administrator in Aurora Public Schools, said her former district used to have a major truancy initiative in place, but it’s been scaled back dramatically over the years because of budget cuts.

“It starts to become a game of tradeoffs,” she said. “The funding isn’t going to increase just because we said you have to do chronic absenteeism.”

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

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