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.”

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”