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.”

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.

open questions

Segregation, struggling schools, ‘a larger vision’: What Councilman Mark Treyger is watching as NYC gets a new schools chief

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
City Councilman Mark Treyger is chair of the council's education committee.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio prepares to choose a new leader for the nation’s largest school system, no one is watching that decision more closely than Mark Treyger.

Treyger, a former history teacher who was recently named chairman of the city council’s education committee, will be responsible for holding the new schools chief accountable. In that role, the Brooklyn Democrat plans to support many of the de Blasio initiatives that the next chancellor will carry out — from expanded preschool to more social services in schools.

But Treyger also has some tough questions for the mayor and his yet-to-be-named schools chief. How do they plan to reduce school segregation? What is the mayor’s overarching vision for the school system? And must he choose the chancellor behind closed doors?

“I do believe that the best decisions are the ones where you involve critical stakeholders,” Treyger told Chalkbeat in a recent interview.

Below are some of the education issues that Treyger said he’ll be paying close attention to as de Blasio prepares to hand the reins of the school system over to a new chancellor.

1. What’s the larger vision for the school system?

Free pre-K has been de Blasio’s signature education accomplishment, but he’s also rolled out an assortment of lesser-known initiatives.

Many of them fall under the banner of “Equity and Excellence for All,” including efforts to make Advanced Placement classes available to all high-school students by 2021 and computer-science courses available to all students by 2025. Some critics have pointed out that many of those programs won’t be fully phased in until after de Blasio leaves. Others — including Treyger — wonder what they all add up to.

“It’s been a commendable beginning,” he said. “But I’m looking for a larger vision.”

On a practical level, Treyger also questioned whether the education department has laid the groundwork to roll out some of those initiatives. He said will work to make sure all schools have the infrastructure they need, such as reliable internet service and appropriate technology, to make sure they can offer courses like computer science.

“How can you have a conversation about computers,” he said, “when the lights don’t even work?”

2. Why not make the chancellor search public?

De Blasio has insisted that he won’t “crowdsource” the search for a new schools chief — despite calls for public input from a chorus of parents and experts.

Treyger thinks a compromise is possible: Let the mayor choose chancellor candidates, but then give the city council the power to vet the candidates during public hearings before signing off on the mayor’s pick.

“I believe that we should be open to moving towards a process where the city council has advise-and-consent power,” he said, adding that the legislature should consider altering the mayoral control law next year to give city lawmakers that power.

3. How serious is this administration about tackling school segregation?

School integration was not on de Blasio’s agenda when he came into office.

But after a grassroots movement of parents and educators called on the mayor to address the school system’s severe racial and socioeconomic segregation, he took some small steps in that direction. The education department released a “school diversity” plan last year, and has launched an integration-aimed admissions program at a few dozen schools and in one Manhattan district.

However, Treyger thinks the city can and must do more — including aligning school enrollment, zoning, and housing policies to work towards the same goal of integration.

“If we’re serious about addressing [segregation], we have to know the difference between managing the problem and actually solving it,” he said. “I think that we’ve seen, thus far, more management than actually solving.”

4. What’s next for the Renewal program?

The mayor’s $582 million “Renewal” program for struggling schools is at a crossroads.

De Blasio made a big bet that his administration could quickly rehabilitate 94 low-performing schools by giving them extra social services and academic support. But the program has achieved mixed results, and now the education department is planning to shutter eight Renewal schools next year — part of the largest round of school closures under de Blasio.

Meanwhile, another 21 schools that officials say have made significant progress will slowly transition out of the program.

Treyger’s first oversight hearing as education chairman, set for next week, will focus on the program. He has spent the last few weeks visiting schools in the program and says he wants to understand what the city’s future plans are for supporting those schools. And he wants to be sure that if struggling schools improve enough to leave the program, their extra support won’t suddenly be cut. (The education department has committed to maintaining the full budget allocation they receive through the city’s funding formula and extra social services for the 21 schools that are improving enough to leave the program.)

“We will not be happy,” he said, “if we learn that a school that is improving or turning things around — that its reward is a funding cut.”