absent minded

New city task force to examine chronic absenteeism and truancy

Mayor Bloomberg chose a rare day off for city students to launch a new effort to study ways to stop truancy.

A new city task force led by the mayor’s chief policy and strategy advisor, John Feinblatt, will investigate how to improve the city’s anti-truancy policies. A key goal is to track student academic and attendance data to determine which students are at risk of chronic absenteeism and notify their parents. The task force has been assigned to figure out the best way to make that goal reality.

One in ten city students is absent from school on an average day, and research shows that nearly three-quarters of students who are chronically absent in sixth grade eventually drop out of high school, city officials said.

The city is billing the mayor’s announcement as the “first-ever task force” to address chronic absenteeism and truancy, but the city has a checkered history of attention to the problem. Currently, the city runs a small “Attendance Court” program in three schools, offering around 45 chronic truants counseling and occasional tough talk from a judge.

But last year, the Department of Education cut its staff from 15 truancy centers over the protests of city district attorneys. At the time, education department officials argued that working with principals to curb truancy school-by-school was a more effective approach than working with law enforcement officials. A school’s attendance rate counts for just 5 percent of its rating on the city’s report card accountability measures, and regular attendance is not required for students to be promoted to the next grade so long as they don’t fail state math and reading exams.

Hedy Chang, the head of Attendance Counts and co-author of a 2008 study on chronic absenteeism, recently told the Hechinger Report that one of the biggest challenges school districts face is tracking chronic absences on a student-by-student level. One of the goals of new data systems proposed in New York’s Race to the Top application is to create an early-warning system that will highlight when students begin to rack up absences. And the city teachers union has partnered with the Harlem Children’s Zone and several other community groups for a federal grant to combat absenteeism in nine low-income schools.

The mayor announced the task force today at a Bronx building that houses two schools, P.S. 61 and I.S. 190, both of which have year-to-date attendance rates of between 90 and 95 percent.

Here’s the city’s press release on the task force:


MAYOR BLOOMBERG ANNOUNCES FIRST-EVER CITYWIDE CAMPAIGN TO REDUCE CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM AND TRUANCY IN CITY SCHOOLS

Comprehensive Strategy to be Developed for 2010-2011 School Year

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced the creation of a new Mayoral Interagency Task Force to be headed by John Feinblatt, the Mayor’s Chief Advisor for Policy and Strategic Planning, to strengthen the City’s response to chronic absenteeism and truancy at City schools. The Task Force will develop and launch the city’s first-ever comprehensive set of initiatives to reduce truancy and chronic absenteeism. It will address excessive absenteeism at all grade levels at schools with the most severe absenteeism problems, but will focus largely on early intervention initiatives in elementary and middle schools.

“Truancy is often a child’s first step in the wrong direction,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Chronic absenteeism leads to higher rates of school failure, delinquency, and dropping out. From there, it is often hard to recover. We are going to focus on truant children because keeping them in school is an investment in their health, future success, and everyone’s safety. The sooner we can identify the cause of truancy and absenteeism, the sooner we can get that child back on track.”

While attendance rates, which have been steadily increasing in recent years, averaged 90 percent last year in New York City, there are pockets of school children who miss far too much school. Nearly 20 percent of City elementary school students missed one month of school or more last year. Research shows that 3 out of 4 students who are chronically absent in the sixth grade never graduate from high school.  In New York City, over 40 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have been chronically absent. Absenteeism rates are highest in low-income communities, where school offers students the best opportunity for future success. The Task Force will focus on developing responses to early warning signals in the early years – before truancy is an entrenched habit.

Mayor Bloomberg was joined at the announcement, held at CS 61 / IS 190 in the Bronx, by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, Chief Policy Advisory John Feinblatt, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) Commissioner Jeanne B. Mullgrav, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) Commissioner Thomas Farley, Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Seth Diamond, NYC Service Chief Service Officer Diahann Billings-Burford, NYPD Assistant Chief Thomas Chan, Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Deputy Commissioner for Division for Child Protection Jan Flory, ACS PINS/DAS Program Director Sara Hemmeter, and Task Force Chair Leslie Cornfeld.

The Task Force will be headed by John Feinblatt, and chaired by Leslie Cornfeld, a former federal prosecutor, who served as Director of the Mayor’s Interagency Task Force on Child Welfare and Safety, created after the tragic child abuse death of Nixzmary Brown. The task force will work closely with community-based organizations and organizations with records of success in this area, and will examine models of success from schools in NYC and throughout the country.

The Task Force will consist of the heads of the key stakeholder agencies responsible for these areas, including the Department of Education (DOE), ACS, New York City Police Department, DYCD, DOHMH, DHS and NYC Service.

“New York City’s public schools have had remarkable success this year, and over the past eight years in improving the educational outcomes for our students,” said John Feinblatt.   “Test scores have improved, graduation rates are higher than ever and our student attendance rates have improved at all grade levels.   However, we want to do even better.  Too many students are missing the opportunities that our NYC public schools provide. Developing a comprehensive approach to this problem requires a well-coordinated, interagency effort overseen and supported by the Mayor’s Office.”

“Despite substantial success in improving educational outcomes for the students of NYC public schools, students can not take advantage of these opportunities if they don’t show up,” said Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.  “We want to ensure that every student in NYC has the chance to take advantage of what our public schools offer.  By partnering with other agencies citywide, we can ensure that all NYC students have a fair chance to attend and succeed in school, and in life.”

“Children’s lives are complicated. The issues families deal with never fit neatly into the box defined by one government agency or another,” said Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. “I’m thrilled City Hall has chosen to take on the issue of chronic absenteeism by creating an interagency task force. This should spur invaluable collaboration across agencies and organizations, and it could eventually make a difference for tens of thousands of students every year. I look forward to helping out in the months to come.”

Johns Hopkins University Research Scientist, Robert Balfanz, a nationally recognized expert in absenteeism and dropout prevention, will serve as an advisor to the Task Force.  He is currently the Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center.

The Task Force will examine a broad spectrum of areas, including: developing a protocol for using absenteeism data to alert parents/guardians and other necessary stakeholders about absences; developing protocols for engaging and supporting targeted students and families; strengthening NYC’s current truancy-related policies and practices; developing protocols to strengthen school partnerships with community-based organizations, service providers and law enforcement; and developing data-driven models for identifying and responding to students and schools at greatest risk of chronic absenteeism.

“Truancy and chronic absenteeism is a public safety issue,” said Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. “When children and teens are truant during school hours, they are more likely to be the victims of and commit crimes. The risk of drug use, gang activity, and criminal behavior increases significantly when students are on the street instead of in the classroom. The NYPD is committed to working with other city agencies on the Task Force to ensure that during school hours all young people are in school learning, engaged and safe.”

“Chronic absenteeism and educational neglect are often the first signal that something is very wrong in that student’s life, including his family situation, his health, or his safety; it is also a strong predictor of poor life outcomes going forward,” said ACS Commissioner John B. Mattingly.  “Because the causes of absenteeism are so varied and complex, interagency collaboration is the best way to address this problem.  We look forward to working with the Task Force to improve outcomes for these at-risk children and teens.”

“Asthma can cost children valuable school time if it’s not well managed,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. “We recommend that children with asthma visit their health care providers now to see if they can benefit from medications that prevent asthma attacks. The right treatment can help ensure that every child can stay in school to learn.”

“The Children’s Aid Society, United Way, Good Shepherd Services, City Year, BuildOn, Learning Leaders and other outstanding community partners will work with the Task Force and NYC Service to engage our at-risk youth at New York City public schools so that they can have every opportunity to reach their potential and succeed in life,” said Chief Service Officer Diahann Billings-Burford.

“As part of our commitment to driving positive, enduring change in local communities, we’re proud to help strengthen educational outcomes for at-risk youth in New York City,” said Andrew Alfano, Starbucks regional vice president, New York metro area.

The Task Force will begin its work today and will launch its first set of initiatives at the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic school year. It will immediately begin to select and target the schools that could benefit most from strategic interagency interventions, will monitor the effectiveness of all initiatives, and report to the Mayor on its progress.

Weighing in

Parents rally to demand a voice in the search for New York City schools chief

PHOTO: Courtesy/Shino Tanikawa
Parents and ddvocates rallied on the steps of the New York City education department headquarters to call for a say in the search for a new schools chancellor.

The education department has made it a mission to boost parent involvement in schools. Now, parents are demanding a bigger role elsewhere: In the search for a new schools chancellor.

Parent leaders from across New York City took to the steps of the education department’s headquarters to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio allow them to have a say in the process.

“For the mayor to deny parents the opportunity to represent the interests of our children in this critical decision is to ignore the voices of our most vulnerable, underrepresented New Yorkers,” Jessamyn Lee, co-chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, said in a statement.

Organizers say about 30 members from a range of parent groups gathered in the rain to call on de Blasio to follow through on a campaign promise made during his first run for mayor.

Before he was was first elected, de Blasio said the city needed a school leader who would be “presented to the public, not just forced down our throat.” But he went on to conduct a hushed search, pulling department veteran Carmen Fariña from retirement to become chancellor.

De Blasio recently won reelection for a second term, and, in December, Fariña announced plans to head back to retirement. This time around, the mayor has committed to a quiet, internal deliberation.

Among the organizations represented at the rally were the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, which is made of leaders from school parent organizations; the Education Council Consortium, which represents members of the local Community and Citywide Education Councils; and the NYCKids PAC, a parent-led political committee. Those are not the only groups seeking more access and transparency in the hiring process. Advocates for different causes, including school integration efforts, have all called for the opportunity to weigh in.

One of those calls came this weekend in an online petition asking de Blasio to consider a well regarded state education official for the job. And the Coalition for Educational Justice, which held its own rally on Tuesday outside City Hall, is calling on the city to appoint a chancellor who “has a strong vision for racial justice in schools.” The organization has called on the city to focus on making sure that teachers have anti-bias training and that classrooms reflect all students’ cultures.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.