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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”