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.

#NationalSchoolWalkout

Carranza discourages student participation in Friday’s gun violence walkout — which could come with consequences

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/P.S. 261
Students at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn walked out of class in March to honor the victims of the Parkland, Fla. shooting and call for stricter gun control laws.

Last month, 100,000 students streamed out of city classrooms to protest gun violence, demonstrations condoned by the mayor and education department officials.

Similar but scaled-down protests are being planned for Friday, but with a major difference — students are more likely to face consequences for walking out of their classes this time.

For the March 14 walkout, held on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17, city education department officials laid out clear rules meant to facilitate student participation. Anyone who left school for the scheduled protest but returned immediately afterward would not be marked absent.

This week, students who are not in school will be marked absent, according to the education department.

At his first town hall meeting with students, Chancellor Richard Carranza implored them not to walk out of class this week.

“I supported it in March,” he said. “This one — I don’t think it’s the same thing.”

Instead, Carranza said, students should focus on having conversations about the issue inside their schools. “You don’t have to be out of school all day to make your voices known. You’ve already made your voices known.”

The department’s revised approach comes as activists planning the day of action worry that focus on gun control policy is diminishing as the Parkland shooting recedes into the past. That shooting has inspired a sustained protest movement led largely by students, but other topics have pushed it out of headlines in recent weeks.

Indeed, advocates are expecting a smaller turnout this time around, with about a dozen New York City schools registered on the national organizing page — including Bard High School Early College Queens and Stuyvesant High School.

One of the biggest demonstrations is expected to be an afternoon rally at Washington Square park, but other schools are opting for a day of action within their own buildings — and some students say they are prioritizing other ways of making a difference.

“We will be hosting a lunch and learn and creating kindness cards,” Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice junior Robina Afzal said in an email. “We don’t feel the walkouts are most effective. Instead we can stay in school and create a change.”

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/P.S. 261
Fifth-grade students at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn are planning to walk out of school on April 20, marking the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. They will head to borough hall and deliver letters to their local U.S. representative calling for stricter gun control laws.

At M.S. 51 in Brooklyn, students will take part in a day of assemblies where they will write letters to elected officials to demand action on issues that are important to young people.

“We want to balance our walkout and take real action that might influence policy-makers, rather than making another powerful public statement,” according to a press release sent by the middle school students there.

P.S. 261 in Brooklyn is one of the few elementary schools expected to participate on Friday. The fifth grade students have assigned themselves organizing tasks, with separate working groups dedicated to poster-making, writing original freedom songs, and even a media team. They plan to march to Borough Hall, where students will stand in a circle, sing, and chant to draw attention to young lives lost to gun violence every day across the United States.

“I think we should do it outside of the school because more people can see us walking out, because this is very important,” said Bayan Clark, a fifth-grader who is helping to organize the event. “Kids get shot every single day and it’s not just in school. It’s also outside.”

Principal Jackie Allen said such social actions are woven into the school’s teaching and learning.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, students wore black armbands in solidarity with protesters who drew attention to racial profiling and bias. When President Trump proposed an immigration ban on majority-Muslim countries, they marched around their school and created posters to signal that everyone is welcome at P.S. 261.

Ever since the Parkland shooting, students have been tackling issues around gun violence, writing letters to local elected representatives and making connections to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We try to make sure the curriculum is relevant,” Allen said. “What’s happening in the world, it does make our way into the classrooms and kids want to talk about it.”

“We want to reflect democratic values,” she said. “We want kids to take social action and develop social awareness.”

Q and A

Here’s what Richard Carranza had to say in his first TV interview as New York City chancellor

Chancellor Richard Carranza was pressed on segregation, testing and metal detectors in schools.

New York City schools chief Richard Carranza has been cramming, if his first media interview since taking over the city’s schools on Monday is any indication.

Carranza spoke with NY1’s Lindsey Christ for about 30 minutes Wednesday, with an empty classroom as a backdrop. She pressed him on some of the most pressing issues facing the city, including school segregation, whether metal detectors belong in schools, and the city’s expensive Renewal program for struggling schools — where Carranza signaled that changes could be coming. He also addressed a gender discrimination lawsuit from his time as the head of San Francisco schools and called boycotts of standardized tests an “extreme reaction.” 

A few times, Carranza acknowledged he is still learning the ropes: Until he arrived in New York City, he had never worked in the country’s largest school system. He comes from Houston, where he was superintendent for less than two years.

Here’s what he had to say in Wednesday’s interview, which you can watch in its entirety here.

On segregation

Carranza is proving to be more frank than his boss — and his predecessor, retired Chancellor Carmen Fariña — on the issues of segregation and integration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has avoided those terms, preferring to speak more broadly about “diversity.” Carranza didn’t mind saying that “segregation and integration” have been issues in every district where he has worked. In Wednesday’s interview, Carranza was asked about his choice of words.

Back to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court used the word segregation. So it is what it is. I think we get caught up sometimes in the terminology and miss the broader picture. The broader picture is that, if we have a public education system that truly belongs to the public, then every member of that public body — every single student, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religious creed — should have access to all — all — opportunities in that system. And if [there is] segregation, then we need to work to end it.

On specialized high schools

New York City’s specialized high schools are some of the most prestigious in the system, but they are also starkly and persistently segregated. Only 10.4 percent of admissions offers for next year’s ninth-grade class went to black and Hispanic students, even though they make up about 70 percent of students citywide. Under de Blasio, the city has tried a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the admissions picture has not budged. Carranza suggested he wanted to see changes — but signaled that he had accepted his boss’s position that state law could be a barrier.

I’m starting to learn about what these issues are… State law notwithstanding, other protocol notwithstanding, how is that OK? From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African American students in a high school. So I’m looking at that, absolutely.

On a gender discrimination settlement from San Francisco

Shortly after Carranza was named chancellor, the New York Daily News uncovered a 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit involving Carranza when he was superintendent of San Francisco schools. The suit, which was settled for $75,000, was filed by a district employee who said she was denied a leadership role during Carranza’s tenure because of her gender and charged he retaliated against her for confronting him about flirting with a woman during a work conference. City Hall told Chalkbeat that officials were aware of the lawsuit but believed the allegations to be false — which Carranza echoed.

It just didn’t happen. It never happened. I’ve been an educator almost 30 years. I’ve worked with thousands of colleagues and there are many people who would talk about my character and who I am … I will stand on my record and I’ll stand on the relationships that I built. But it never happened.

On the city’s long-running investigation into yeshivas

In 2015, the education department said it would investigate whether private yeshivas offer adequate instruction in secular subjects such as math and science. The results of that politically charged investigation have yet to be revealed, and the city hasn’t offered a timeline for when it would be completed. Meanwhile, a new state law seems to hand state education leaders the power to evaluate the schools — rather than the local district. Carranza wouldn’t commit to a timeline to wrap up the city’s investigation, or even promise to finish it.

I haven’t been fully briefed on the investigation, or what this history of the investigation has been, but I believe that every student — regardless of where they go to school — needs to have a quality education. … My commitment is to be very transparent in terms of where the investigation is and what the next steps in the investigation are.

On metal detectors

Metal detectors are a polarizing issue in the debate over how to keep schools safe. Some advocates say the city would be better off investing in services like mental health supports, but others argue that metal detectors keep students and staff safe. Once metal detectors are installed in schools, they are almost never removed. But Carranza signaled he is open to having conversations about taking scanners out of schools.

The most effective, in my experience, security system is an environment where students feel a responsibility for their safety and feel comfortable in reporting when they hear or they see something… I think in some places there may be a very good reason why we have metal detectors. Again, I’m just getting here but that’s one of the topics I really want to explore. If we have metal detectors, what’s the reason for it, what’s the justification for it and if there’s no need for it, then how do we get rid of those?

On testing

New York has one of the largest opt-out movements in the country, with parents instructing their children to refuse to take standardized tests. Carranza said English and math tests should not crowd out other subjects such as art, but he also was clear that he does not encourage opting out.

I think it’s an extreme reaction to where I think we could have a much more nuanced approach. All right, let’s look at how much testing is happening in our schools, and then let’s decide what has to be there so that we know where our students are, and then let’s eliminate whatever we don’t need to have… There are a number of tests that serve a purpose. I think that’s a more nuanced conversation. What’s the purpose and why is that important?

On the Renewal program for struggling schools

De Blasio has spent more than $500 million to support struggling schools through Renewal, which floods dozens of struggling schools with extra support, social services such as health care, and a longer school day. Though the mayor promised “fast and intense” improvements, Renewal has produced mixed results. Carranza called the program “incredibly proactive,” but also suggested there might be changes coming.  

Where have the results been mixed and then how do we change strategies or how do we update our strategy? How do we become strategic in certain areas? That’s part of improving.