the truant chase

More students get attendance mentors in program's third year

Jean Robinson, then a senior at the High School for Teaching and the Professions, spoke at a press conference touting the city's absenteeism initiative last year.

After testing a range of strategies to combat truancy, the city is settling on one that’s close to home: matching students with a mentor within their own schools.

“Mentoring has been central to our fight against chronic absenteeism,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during his weekly radio address on Sunday, which focused on the start of the school year.

Since 2010, when Bloomberg launched a campaign against absenteeism. the city has paired some frequently absent students with “Success Mentors,” school staff and volunteers who monitor their attendance and coax them back to school. After starting with just 450 students in 2010, the program grew to about 4,000 students in 50 schools last year.

Citing dramatic gains, the city has increased the program’s size again this year. With more than 5,000 students in 100 schools, the Success Mentor initiative is now the largest school-based mentoring program in the country, city officials say.

John Feinblatt, the deputy mayor in charge of the Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement, said last year that the city was exploring a range of “success mentor” models, including peer mentoring and enlisting volunteers from outside organizations. But the city has zeroed in on what it’s calling the “internal school-staff model” in part because it can be expanded without adding cost or personnel, according to Lauren Passalacqua, a city spokeswoman.

Under the model, school staff members — teachers, administrators, and support staff, including counselors and social workers — are matched with individual students who are chronically absent or seen as likely to have major attendance issues in the future.

In addition to communicating with the students they are mentoring, the staff members collect data about the students’ attendance, performance, and other variables. Each week, principals meet with the mentors to review the data and strategize for the future. Mentors also spend 20 percent of their time on strategies for helping their entire schools improve.

It’s a systematized, data-driven version of something teachers have always done: look out for their students and work with colleagues to help the students who fall behind. It also closely mirrors some components of a data program designed by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz. In the Balfanz model, which some city schools are using, schools analyze data not just about attendance but also about behavior and math and reading grades.

An analysis of states’ approaches to collecting and using attendance data that Balfanz and a colleague published in May lauded the Success Mentor initiative.

“The expectations are high for Success Mentors,” the report lauded in a section that said New York City had “clearly moved absenteeism prevention to the head of the class” with its attendance task force.

Students who had mentors last year saw their absenteeism rates fall by 25.3 percent for elementary school students, 16.4 percent for middle school students, and 2.8 percent for high school students, according to city data.

Altogether, students with mentors attended almost 12,000 more days of school than chronically absent students at schools the city identified as similar, according to the city. Students who miss more than a month of school are considered chronically absent, and they are less likely to graduate or hit other markers of success.

Passalacqua said the city crunched the attendance data to see what characteristics made a mentor-student relationship more likely to be correlated with improved attendance. Were younger mentors more effective than older ones? Were students who worked with school personnel than students who worked with external volunteers? The most significant variable the department examined, she said, was whether students and mentors worked together from the beginning of the school year.

So this year, the city added 50 new schools to the program roster and is matching new students with mentors early in the year.  The new additions include 13 elementary schools, 10 middle schools, 16 high schools, and — in the most significant increase —  11 transfer schools for students who have fallen behind. Last year, only two transfer schools offered Success Mentors to their chronically absent students.

The new schools were selected because they had above-average rates of chronic absenteeism and a principal who wanted to tackle the issue, Passalacqua said.

Last year, Jean Robinson, then a high school senior, said her mentor was instrumental in getting her to halve the number of school days she missed. Before starting to work with her mentor, a school guidance counselor, no one had ever bothered to tell Robinson she had to go to school, she said.

“I just feel like I needed that extra push, somebody to get me out the door and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to school,’” Robinson said.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.