showing up

Indianapolis Public Schools is trying new strategies to reduce absenteeism. They’re working

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Getting kids to school can be hard: They miss the bus. Their families are evicted. They have dentist appointments.

Some days it’s trivial issues that keep kids home. Other times it’s steeper challenges. But a growing body of research shows that when students are chronically absent from school, they are much more likely to face problems with everything from learning to read to graduating high school. That’s why Indianapolis Public Schools is investing in a new program aimed at boosting attendance at schools across the district.

School districts across the country are paying extra attention to improving attendance and reducing chronic absenteeism in recent years. Indiana is one of many states that now requires schools to track chronic absence, and districts from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Milwaukee are tackling the challenge of tracking and reducing absences.

In Indianapolis, the effort started in 2015-2016, and it ranges from rewards for kids who have perfect attendance to targeted help for students who miss 18 days of school or more. It’s being rolled out with the help of eight new graduation counselors, who are tasked with making sure struggling students don’t fall through the cracks.

“People want to spend a lot of time talking about more in-depth strategies for reading, literacy,” said Lisa Brenner, who runs student services for the district. “But all your strategies don’t work if the students aren’t there.”

At School 83, a neighborhood elementary school on the northeast side, staff have been spending a lot more time talking about attendance over the last year and a half.

The school sends students home with flyers about attendance, and when parents come in for conferences with teachers they talk about how important it is for kids to show up. When social worker Kim Winkel hears from parents, she always checks on their children’s attendance and tardiness.

“I see them slowly getting it,” Winkel said. “The families and the parents are starting to see and buy into us saying, ‘you need to be here. You need to be learning.’ ”

School 83 is also offering a slew of rewards for kids to come to school: There’s a club for students with good attendance, students can earn snacks or the chance to wear jeans and the class with the best attendance each month has a party.

Those are the kind of small programs designed to reach all the kids in a school, said Hedy Chang of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that researches and promotes school attendance. School-wide efforts like rewards are often the first step in district strategies to improve attendance, and they are most effective with students who only have minor attendance problems, Chang said. Reaching kids with more severe attendance gaps is a different challenge.

“You have to start some place where you feel like you can make a difference. Messaging just doesn’t take that much,” Chang said. “It’s harder to move the kids out of chronic absence.”

So far, the district has seen relatively modest impact on students with severe attendance issues. District data show that the number of students who were chronically absent — those who missed 18 or more days of school — fell by 232 students in the first year of the program. Last year, 9.55 percent of students were chronically absent, down from 10.14 percent in 2014-2015.

Absence rates are typically much higher in IPS high schools than elementary schools. At most elementary schools in the district, fewer than 5 percent of students are chronically absent. At some of the district’s high schools, however, chronic absence rates are as high as 35 percent, according to state data.

Districtwide, the improvement has been faster among students who are on the cusp, missing 10-18 days of school. During the first year of the effort, the number of students at-risk fell from 16.93 percent to 14.45 percent — 808 fewer students fell into that category.

But the district is also in the beginning stages of the program. This year, staff are focusing on reaching kids with more severe attendance issues, Brenner said. That means creating programs that get kids excited about school like adult mentors who eat breakfast with students. And it means offering targeted help based on the problems each student is facing.

“There are lots of great things we could do,” Brenner said, “but if they are not meeting the individual needs of the students, they are just not going to be effective.”

Staff at School 83 are already spending a lot of time working directly with families when kids struggle to come to school. When kids miss school, they call parents to check in. If that doesn’t work, they stop by students’ houses. And they try to help families find a plan to get their children to school.

Last year, a first grader was so anxious about coming to school that she would cry every day and complain of stomach aches, said Cathy Pullings, the parent involvement educator. Eventually, the girl’s mother started making excuses to keep her home.

So Pullings made a deal with the student — come to school, stay all day and at the end of the week, she would visit Pullings for a special prize.

“Before I knew … she didn’t have to come and get that prize anymore. She was there every single day,” Pullings said. “I think it’s just a little push to say, ‘I’m here for you. What can we do to make it better for you to come to school?”

All this work seems to be paying off. School 83 has one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism in the district. Last year, the school, which enrolled 290 kids, had just 3 students who missed enough school to land on that list.

Staff have always paid attention to average daily attendance at School 83. But the new program was an extra reminder to focus on what was going on with every student, said principal Heather Haskett. They are constantly looking at data to make sure students aren’t falling through the cracks.

“Now, we’re more direct and more explicit about what we are doing,” she said. “We are really looking at every single, individual child and monitoring their attendance.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”