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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.