showing up

Colorado schools soon will be judged by a new measure: How many students are chronically absent

The mother was anxious when she arrived at Monte Vista Elementary School in southern Colorado to discuss her 7-year-old daughter’s absences and frequent late arrivals.

But there were no reprimands that day in the school library. Instead, during a meeting led by an outside facilitator, a school staff member started by saying, “Hey, we really love it when your daughter is here. She’s so full of energy and excitement.”

Soon, the mother was opening up about the problems that made it tough to get her child to school on time, or at all — her work demands, her boyfriend’s unreliable car and her fears about sending her young daughter alone on the half-mile walk to the bus stop on frigid winter days.

The mother left with a sense of relief and the beginnings of a carpool plan that would enlist neighboring families to drive the little girl to the bus stop on days her family couldn’t.

That meeting a few years ago was part of a four-year effort by the Monte Vista school district and a local nonprofit group to combat chronic absenteeism among students. It’s also the kind of program that more school districts around Colorado may adopt or expand with the state’s recent decision to use chronic absenteeism as one measure in its accountability system.

Chronic absences — when kids miss school 10 percent or more of the time — increases the likelihood kids won’t read well by the end of third grade, will be held back in later grades and will drop out of high school.

Colorado is one of more than a dozen states that will use chronic absenteeism as a measure of school and district quality in the education plans they’ll soon submit to the federal government. More specifically, Colorado will look at whether schools and districts are reducing chronic absenteeism among elementary- and middle-schoolers. At the high school level, the state will look at dropout rates.

Under the federal education law passed in 2015, states were no longer confined to academic measures such as test scores and graduation rates in their accountability systems. Instead, they could choose a non-academic measure, too. Commonly referred to as the “fifth indicator,” it won’t count as much as the four academic indicators, but advocates see it as a chance to take a more holistic view of school success.

Under Colorado’s accountability system, consistently poor-performing schools can face state intervention and consistently poor-performing districts can face the loss of accreditation.

Sue Fothergill, associate director of policy at the national initiative Attendance Works, said she’s heartened to see so many states include chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans.

She said reducing chronic absenteeism rates can be a daunting challenge, but making it a priority in the plans could push districts to shift resources to such efforts and galvanize community leaders to get involved.

Change possible

In Colorado, chronic absenteeism will be used for a year in the state’s plan and then may be replaced.

Dan Jorgensen, accountability support manager for the state education department, said chronic absenteeism could be retained as one component of the fifth indicator, but it will be up to a committee of education leaders to decide.

Lisa Escarcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives and a member of the committee that developed the state plan, said chronic absenteeism works well in the short term because the state already collects such data from school districts and it’s a serviceable proxy for school climate.

Still, she said members of the workgroup that considered the options had initially envisioned something a little different.

“I think they imagined having a fifth indicator that was broader in scope and reflected more the kinds of things around climate and culture of schools…a little bit more of a qualitative type of indicator,” she said.

Luke Yoder, executive director of the Alamosa-based Center for Restorative Programs, which works with local school districts to address chronic absenteeism, said including the indicator in the state accountability plan “on many levels … makes a ton of sense.”

Still, he worried it could cause some districts to fudge the numbers — sometimes an unintended consequence of new mandates.

Root of the problem

Rates of chronic absenteeism are all over the map in Colorado school districts.

In Douglas County, the rate is just 4 percent. It’s more than 30 percent in Pueblo 60 and Adams 14, according to 2013-14 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. (The state began collecting chronic absenteeism rates from school districts last spring, but those numbers haven’t been released publicly yet.)

Then there are tiny rural districts, such as Centennial in the San Luis Valley, where 47 percent of students are chronically absent.

But a grant-funded initiative begun this year in partnership with the Center for Restorative Programs could help the 215-student district bring down those numbers. It’s similar to the effort in the Monte Vista school district that led to the parent meeting in the elementary school library.

The idea is to intervene with families early on — usually after a student has just three absences — using a friendly, problem-solving approach.

“It’s an opportunity to start a conversation that’s much more of a bridge-building conversation instead of a scolding,” said Yoder, who led the meeting with the mother of the 7-year-old girl.

There are lots of reasons that student absences pile up and many have to do with poverty, including a lack of stable housing or reliable transportation. Parents may also have work shifts that conflict with school start times or lean on older children to stay home with younger siblings if the usual caregiver is sick or busy.

As kids get older, they may miss school because of academic, social or mental health problems, or because they’ve taken on jobs to help their families. Some kids also miss school because they’ve been suspended or expelled.

Advocates like Yoder say absenteeism is a complex problem that requires a non-punitive approach from schools.

“Too many of our school districts fall into the trap of waiting until it’s a real a problem and (they) file in court and drop the hammer on these families,” he said, referring to the truancy court system.

The gentler approach his organization has helped institute in Monte Vista, and is now working toward in Centennial, gets results, he said.

Since the effort started in Monte Vista, the proportion of students with 10 or more absences has dropped from 44 percent to 28 percent and the proportion of students with 20 or more absences has dropped from 17 percent to 6 percent.

Money troubles

While many Colorado districts say the issue of chronic absenteeism is on their radar, they note stagnating state funding has hurt efforts to address the issue.

Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for Greeley district, said there used to be school-based attendance liaisons whose job was to help monitor students who missed lots of school. But those positions were cut three years ago. Now, there are just two attendance liaisons for the 22,000-student district, so much of the burden has fallen back onto teachers and principals.

Chronic absenteeism was 19 percent in Greeley in 2013-14, according to the Office of Civil Rights data.

“It is a resource issue for us,” Myers said.

Escarcega, who until last year was a top administrator in Aurora Public Schools, said her former district used to have a major truancy initiative in place, but it’s been scaled back dramatically over the years because of budget cuts.

“It starts to become a game of tradeoffs,” she said. “The funding isn’t going to increase just because we said you have to do chronic absenteeism.”

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.