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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.