keeping tabs

Citing NYC as a model, state moves to track ‘chronically absent’ students

In New York City, officials have found that roughly one in five students misses about a month or more of school each year, a risk factor that has been linked to lower test scores and higher dropout rates. But in Albany, officials do not know many students statewide miss that much school since, unlike in the city, they do not track that data.

Now, state officials are trying to catch up by requiring districts to pay more attention to students who are frequently absent, and they are pointing to New York City’s efforts to spot and support such students as a model.

Under a proposal considered by the Board of Regents this week, the state education department would start to report each school and district’s number of “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year, or 18 or more days. Low-performing schools would also have to add attendance targets to their required improvement plans, under the proposed policy changes that Regents members are set to vote on this spring.

Unlike other districts, New York City already has a system in place to flag chronically absent students, and it requires every school to set an annual attendance plan. What’s more, the city launched an aggressive anti-absenteeism campaign a few years ago that included subway ads, a student-mentorship program, and data-tracking and accountability tools aimed at schools, all of which helped drive down the number of frequently absent students.

The de Blasio administration is continuing some of those efforts, such as mentorships for regularly absent students, and also trying new approaches, such as bringing extra support services into schools that struggle with absenteeism.

Despite the progress, individual schools have had mixed success drawing students to school, and only about 60 of the 100 schools in a Bloomberg-era initiative to reduce chronic absences had made gains by last year, according to a new report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. Also, while the city keeps track of frequently absent students, it no longer rates schools on that measure or makes it public, instead letting each school set its own attendance goals.

“I feel like they’re doing their very best at Tweed to make principals aware of chronic absenteeism and to provide them with ideas and strategies for reducing the level,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the Center for New York City Affairs, whose 2008 report on this issue helped galvanize city officials.

But with all the other demands on principals, and the difficulty of getting some parents to send their children to school each day, some school leaders have devoted far more energy to attendance than others, Nauer said. For instance, the principal of P.S. 48 in Queens directed staffers to monitor students who missed the most school, according to the New School report. After one year of close supervision, the school’s list of 160 regularly absent students dwindled to 26.

“It really is up to the principal to make it a priority for him or herself,” Nauer said.

The state currently tracks schools’ attendance rates, but the new proposal would have it report how many students are each school are chronically absent. That measure differs from daily attendance rates, which are school-wide snapshots, and truancy counts, which only track unexcused absences.

New York is one of just six states that does not gather individual students’ total absences, which can be used to calculate chronic absence rates, according to a report by the group Attendance Works and the Data Quality Campaign. Researchers say that missing many school days is a predictor of students reading below grade level and failing classes, and the city says that a full three-quarters of sixth-grade students who are chronically absent never earn a diploma.

The city education department provides schools with weekly lists of students who have missed 20 school days or are close to doing so, and last year it began to publish each school’s chronic absence rate in its annual progress report. However, the city’s revamped school-evaluation system dropped that measure from some of its school reports, opting only to include the average daily attendance rate.

Nauer said her team had advised city officials to keep the chronic absence figure in the new reports and to downplay the attendance rates. In last month’s report, Nauer and her colleagues noted that a school with 90 percent average attendance can still have more than a third of students miss 20 or more days each year.

“You can have a very high rate of average daily attendance,” said Attendance Works Director Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, “but actually you’ve got a large number of kids who are missing so much school they’re falling behind.”

The city is taking several steps to continue to reduce the number of frequently absent students, officials said.

First, it is continuing the previous administration’s mentorship program that paired students who miss lots of school with staffers, nonprofit workers, or peers who keep tabs on the students and offer them support. That program had expanded to 100 schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but now about 60 schools have grants to run the program, officials said.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has added school guidance counselors and parent-teacher conferences, which both can help improve attendance, the officials said. Also, the city will convert 128 schools into “community schools” with extra support services, including 45 schools that have high chronic absence rates.

“For our students to succeed they must be in school,” said education department spokesman Harry Hartfield, “and that is why we are committing expansive resources to keep students in the classroom.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.