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. (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An outdated idea about what happens in kindergarten is only one reason parents don’t bring their kids to school.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.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.