keeping tabs

Citing NYC as a model, state moves to track ‘chronically absent’ students

In New York City, officials have found that roughly one in five students misses about a month or more of school each year, a risk factor that has been linked to lower test scores and higher dropout rates. But in Albany, officials do not know many students statewide miss that much school since, unlike in the city, they do not track that data.

Now, state officials are trying to catch up by requiring districts to pay more attention to students who are frequently absent, and they are pointing to New York City’s efforts to spot and support such students as a model.

Under a proposal considered by the Board of Regents this week, the state education department would start to report each school and district’s number of “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year, or 18 or more days. Low-performing schools would also have to add attendance targets to their required improvement plans, under the proposed policy changes that Regents members are set to vote on this spring.

Unlike other districts, New York City already has a system in place to flag chronically absent students, and it requires every school to set an annual attendance plan. What’s more, the city launched an aggressive anti-absenteeism campaign a few years ago that included subway ads, a student-mentorship program, and data-tracking and accountability tools aimed at schools, all of which helped drive down the number of frequently absent students.

The de Blasio administration is continuing some of those efforts, such as mentorships for regularly absent students, and also trying new approaches, such as bringing extra support services into schools that struggle with absenteeism.

Despite the progress, individual schools have had mixed success drawing students to school, and only about 60 of the 100 schools in a Bloomberg-era initiative to reduce chronic absences had made gains by last year, according to a new report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. Also, while the city keeps track of frequently absent students, it no longer rates schools on that measure or makes it public, instead letting each school set its own attendance goals.

“I feel like they’re doing their very best at Tweed to make principals aware of chronic absenteeism and to provide them with ideas and strategies for reducing the level,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the Center for New York City Affairs, whose 2008 report on this issue helped galvanize city officials.

But with all the other demands on principals, and the difficulty of getting some parents to send their children to school each day, some school leaders have devoted far more energy to attendance than others, Nauer said. For instance, the principal of P.S. 48 in Queens directed staffers to monitor students who missed the most school, according to the New School report. After one year of close supervision, the school’s list of 160 regularly absent students dwindled to 26.

“It really is up to the principal to make it a priority for him or herself,” Nauer said.

The state currently tracks schools’ attendance rates, but the new proposal would have it report how many students are each school are chronically absent. That measure differs from daily attendance rates, which are school-wide snapshots, and truancy counts, which only track unexcused absences.

New York is one of just six states that does not gather individual students’ total absences, which can be used to calculate chronic absence rates, according to a report by the group Attendance Works and the Data Quality Campaign. Researchers say that missing many school days is a predictor of students reading below grade level and failing classes, and the city says that a full three-quarters of sixth-grade students who are chronically absent never earn a diploma.

The city education department provides schools with weekly lists of students who have missed 20 school days or are close to doing so, and last year it began to publish each school’s chronic absence rate in its annual progress report. However, the city’s revamped school-evaluation system dropped that measure from some of its school reports, opting only to include the average daily attendance rate.

Nauer said her team had advised city officials to keep the chronic absence figure in the new reports and to downplay the attendance rates. In last month’s report, Nauer and her colleagues noted that a school with 90 percent average attendance can still have more than a third of students miss 20 or more days each year.

“You can have a very high rate of average daily attendance,” said Attendance Works Director Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, “but actually you’ve got a large number of kids who are missing so much school they’re falling behind.”

The city is taking several steps to continue to reduce the number of frequently absent students, officials said.

First, it is continuing the previous administration’s mentorship program that paired students who miss lots of school with staffers, nonprofit workers, or peers who keep tabs on the students and offer them support. That program had expanded to 100 schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but now about 60 schools have grants to run the program, officials said.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has added school guidance counselors and parent-teacher conferences, which both can help improve attendance, the officials said. Also, the city will convert 128 schools into “community schools” with extra support services, including 45 schools that have high chronic absence rates.

“For our students to succeed they must be in school,” said education department spokesman Harry Hartfield, “and that is why we are committing expansive resources to keep students in the classroom.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”