talking attendance

Most Detroit kindergartners miss too much school. They’ll likely struggle to read later.

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Truancy might bring to mind teenagers skipping class to hang out with their friends or play video games, but in Detroit, it’s the kindergarteners teachers have to worry about.

Almost 70 percent of all kindergarteners in Detroit’s main district miss 10 days of class or more a year, five times the national average for all students.

Parents may think of kindergarten as finger painting and playing games, but missing a large number of days likely means a child will struggle in school. Experts say children who miss too many days are the least likely to be able to read at grade level later on.

“Among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of fifth grade,” a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty says.

That’s a pressing issue in Detroit, because in 2020, a new state law will force schools to hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level.

Research on the effects of missing schools is clear: When a child misses two or more days a month — or in other words, is chronically absent — the absences hurt not only the child’s progress, but also the progress of the rest of the class.

Attendance advocates say the misconception that kindergarten is not important is a major reason parents keep their kids at home.

“Anecdotally, one of the things we hear in Detroit is that many parents of kindergartners don’t necessarily know it’s important to get their child to school every day and part of that might be that it’s not mandated in Michigan,” said Sarah Lenhoff, a Wayne State University education professor whose research is focused on attendance issues in Detroit’s main district.  

An outdated idea about what happens in kindergarten is only one reason parents don’t bring their kids to school. Another is chronic health issues.

When Esmeralda Torres’ 6-year-old son Eduardo wakes up on a school morning at his home in southwest Detroit with swollen eyes and a runny nose — complications from his chronic asthma — she keeps him home.

“Usually I would take him and my other kids to school every chance I get,” she said, “But I wouldn’t feel as guilty not taking him to school in kindergarten.”

Torres’ attitude is not unusual, but kindergarten is no longer all about playtime. It’s about building a foundation for the rest of a child’s school years.

A 2016 report from the University of Virginia found that the focus of kindergarten has shifted from art, music, and free play to “literacy and math content, teacher instruction and assessment.” In national media, kindergarten has often been called “the new first grade.”

A national leader on attendance issues, Attendance Works, has been researching the issue for more than a decade. Executive Director Hedy Chang said families don’t know just how crucial early education, including kindergarten, has become. And it’s especially important for families living in poverty.

“When you’re in school, it’s allowing you to benefit from a literacy-rich, high-quality learning environment,” Chang said. “Kids in poverty are dependent on that literacy-rich environment.

“Their parents are working multiple jobs, and there’s research from multiple places that it has consequences for third-grade reading.”

Last year, only about 10 percent of third-graders in the Detroit district read at grade level. The district has doubled down on getting those scores up, but the updated instruction won’t matter if students don’t come to class.

“We have a view of kindergarten that it’s kind of a nice entry to socialization, but it’s more content and critical learning and families aren’t aware that it can have adverse consequences,” Chang said.

In Detroit, Chang said health issues like asthma are a particular challenge. The asthma hospitalization rates in the southwest Detroit area are almost triple the state average. Eduardo is part of that statistic. Usually he misses class because he is struggling with his asthma.

Even if a child is able to attend, if parents are sick or their car breaks down, there’s not much a kindergartener can do.

A recent study by two Wayne State University researchers found that school-level issues, like teacher-parent trust and discipline policies, can also play a role in whether a child’s parent brings her to school.

Despite the challenges, the issue of chronic absenteeism has been a priority for the prominent education and business leaders who’ve formed the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. Members issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in December.

It’s first priority is to reduce rates of chronic absenteeism by collecting more data, improving the school culture, more money for health needs like school nurses, and getting parents invested in bringing their children to school every day.

But the coalition needs the help of other groups to move their plan forward. The Brightmoor Alliance, 482Forward, Urban Neighborhoods Initiative, and the Congress of Communities banded together to form Every School Day Counts Detroit in 2015, a group at the forefront of reducing chronic absenteeism.

They are working in seven Detroit district schools to help track of attendance and inform families of the importance of attending school.

A spokesman for the main Detroit district said it recognizes the importance of attending kindergarten and has “taken an active role in sharing key messages as it pertains to being in school every day through our newly implemented PTAs, newsletters, backpack mail, and automated phone calls.”

Esmeralda Torres may not be convinced. She keeps Eduardo home because she doesn’t believe he’ll be properly cared for. In addition to her son’s asthma issues, he is hyperactive, and she thinks in a classroom of 25, the teacher can’t look after them all.

But in the long run, Chang says the best thing for kids like Eduardo is to still come to class.

“Parents don’t realize what kids are learning in the early grades and how much it’s critical to school success.”

Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”

 

Classroom Lessons

They saw life inside Detroit classrooms — and now some of them want to teach

PHOTO: Geneva Simons Photography
City Year Americorp members close their graduation ceremony with a spirited celebration.

For the 71 young adults who just finished 10 months of service in Detroit district schools, this past academic year was, essentially, a trial by fire.

The City Year Americorps members worked with some of Detroit’s neediest children — tutoring and mentoring them, and assisting their teachers in the classroom. It wasn’t easy. Many rose at 5:30 a.m. and reported working up to 12-hour days for a modest stipend. For many volunteers, the rigor of it all was clarifying: It inspired some to pursue teaching and pointed others toward different career paths.

City Year does not yet have comprehensive data about what percentage of its corps members are interested in going into teaching, or working as counselors or social workers in a Detroit school setting. But the program is beginning to track its alumni; what it finds out could prove instructive for the district, which is still struggling to fill nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

Americorps is a federal volunteer program, whose participants get a $1,000 a month stipend, a $5,800 post-service award. Some also have a chance to be awarded a $5,000 college scholarship. In return, the 18- to 25-year-olds commit to year of full-time service with the goal of keeping public school students on track to graduate.

Chalkbeat caught up with six recent Americorps alumni to discuss what they learned about the challenges and rewards of serving in Detroit schools, and how those lessons shape what they want to do next.

Bryan Aaron, 23, Detroit

Bryan Aaron

When he started tutoring in a class of 5th graders at Noble Elementary-Middle School, Bryan Aaron knew students’ English and math scores were shockingly low, with fewer than 10 percent passing the MSTEP in both subjects. But he was surprised to learn just how much factors outside of the classroom — food and housing insecurities, lack of transportation — affect students’ grades and attendance. In some cases students would be living with a parent one day, and an aunt or grandparent the next.

“It’s a huge factor in their ability to learn,” he said, noting that standardized tests don’t account for these issues. “What is not being taken into consideration is they haven’t had any sleep because they had to move in the middle of the night, and they haven’t had adequate nutrition.”

That helped him understand how much consistency matters for students. In one case, he helped a student with poor attendance figure out how to get to school since his father was using the family car at that time. Aaron arranged for him to ride the bus with an older sibling.

Now, Aaron, a recent college grad, is planning to apply to medical school. As he is working on his application, he’s considering conducting pediatric research on bioethics or the post-operative effects of opiates. He’s hoping to be accepted by a medical school in the region, and aspires to form a partnership between the district and the medical school to expose Noble students to the health sciences.

Blake Wilkes, 23, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Blake Wilkes

After spending a school year working in an 8th grade classroom at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Wilkes has decided he’s not suited for a career as a classroom teacher in the long-term because he said he doesn’t “have the patience to deal with what [students] go through.” But he’s not leaving education altogether: The recent college graduate will return to do a second year of service, which corps members have an option to do, then he plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor for the Detroit district.

During his first year in the program, the night owl pushed himself to rise by 5:30 a.m. for the 12-hour workday ahead. He tutored students in core subjects, helped the classroom teacher with lesson plans, and coordinated after-school activities. He said that his work taught him what difficult home lives some students endure, and how much the resulting social-emotional issues  impact their attitude and academic performance. He recalls a once-happy, high-achieving student who started having anger and behavioral issues after her mother died in the middle of the school year. He said he talked it through with her as best he could, and shed empathetic tears for the grieving student.

He also cried on the last day of school, recognizing how transformational the year had been, and how much he had grown and developed on a personal level.

“Seeing the kinds of stuff that the kids have to deal with everyday and how nobody’s on their side, it motivates me to work hard for them,” Wilkes said.

Brea Liggons, 25, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Brea Liggons

Working inside a 4th grade classroom at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, a pre-K–8 school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, showed Liggons the staggering amount teachers have on their plates.

“Sometimes, it looks like teachers don’t care about their students, but they have one title and multiple roles they have to play everyday,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to sit down with the students one-on-one, but I did.”

Her Americorps year recalled her own challenging middle school experience, and that increased her resolve to help students with their grades, attendance, and social-emotional skill set.

“Everyday, we had to talk about their struggles, their improvement, and we really needed to pay close attention if they acted out of the ordinary,” she said. “That’s how we knew if they were having a problem like a parent passing away.”

Liggons, who plans to return to her graduate studies at Wayne State University before becoming a counselor of some kind in a district school, taught students how to set goals, and about the power of optimistic thinking.  

“After awhile, they were begging to set their own goals. They were excited,” she said of their goals, such as deciding to let others go first, remembering to raise hands in class, and giving compliments to others and to themselves. “Just by doing that, we were literally able to watch some of our students grow immensely.”

Yazmin Gerardo, 22, Farmington Hills

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Yazmin Gerardo

A self-described introvert, Gerardo found it overwhelming to work with 4th grade students at the Brenda Scott Academy because it was so large. The school in northeast Detroit, which serves pre-K to 8th graders, has more than 700 students. But she stretched, in an effort to understand and assist students.

“It wasn’t about me,” the native Detroit, who attended Detroit public schools, said. “At the end of the day, we were doing this, working with kids, and for good reason.”

Her year of service inspired her to pursue a career in teaching in the Detroit district.

“Having someone to constantly show up and root for them is what I want to do,” she said.

“…They would come to me and say, ‘I wasn’t going to come to school today, but you promised me we would eat together at lunch, we could play a game or you would give me stickers.’”

Daniel Finegan, 25, Sterling Heights

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Daniel Finegan

By the end of the school year, which he spent tutoring, mentoring and assisting the classroom teacher with 7th and 8th graders at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, Finegan was so set on teaching in a Detroit public school, he was already looking for a rental home in the Bagley neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Not only that, he’s had interviews with principals at four schools and has a contingency offer in hand.

“City Year has been my student teaching experience,” Finegan, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said. His Americorps year solidified his decision to teach.

He is working toward his teacher’s certification, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be ready to start teaching in the district when the 2018–2019 school year begins.

Parker Schimler, 23, Royal Oak

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Parker Schimler

After his year of service in 7th and 8th grade classrooms at Gompers, Schimler understands exactly what it can be like when a school district struggles with teacher vacancies. One teacher he worked with had hip surgery, and substitute teachers were in and out of the classroom for most of the school year. It left students discombobulated and unfocused.

But that gave him an opportunity to take a deep dive into the lives of the students, discovering their strengths and helping them work on their weaker areas. He said he became particularly good at getting shy students to open up to him, and the ones who appreciated him most sometimes drew pictures for him. He was left with a strong appreciation for one student in particular, who set a goal to be a NBA player and an athletic shoe designer. That student made Schimler an origami athletic shoe.

“Without a teacher in the classroom, they weren’t getting the education I did and the education they deserve,” he said. “I worked with them in small groups and gave them worksheets to help them out the best I could.”