Taking attendance

As districts across the country try to drive down absenteeism, New York City leads the way

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students participate in a peer mentoring program at Cypress Hills Collegiate Preparatory School.

As Anna Diaz started her sophomore year of high school, simply making it to class each day was an ordeal.

Her home life was sometimes chaotic, her mom was out of work, and she wrestled with depression. On top of that, after a summer of bouncing from hotel to hotel, her family relocated to Queens, lengthening her commute to her Brooklyn high school to nearly two hours. As a result, she rarely made it to first period at Cypress Hills Collegiate Preparatory School, and missed roughly 15 percent of her sophomore year.

“I was going through a lot,” recalled Diaz, now a senior at Cypress Hills. She was hardly alone: That year, 42 percent of her peers were deemed “chronically absent” because they missed at least 10 percent of the school year or about 18 days.

Under pressure to improve attendance, the school has dug deeper into student data, set individual goals for students, reached out to families, and created incentives like trips to museums or theme parks to reward improvement. It’s also tried to make the school more appealing to students — for instance, by establishing a mentorship program that pairs freshmen with older students and working to improve teachers’ lessons — under the theory that students need a reason to show up.

The strategy is paying off: Last school year, 28 percent of students were chronically absent, down from 61 percent in 2014.

“It’s really an overall school approach,” said Principal Amy Yager.

In recent years, New York City’s education department has been paying more attention to chronic absenteeism, which is linked to lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system. Beyond being a serious risk factor for students, officials see chronic absenteeism as a barometer of a school’s ability to create a safe, stimulating space that entices students to attend.

New York City isn’t alone: Roughly three-quarters of states — including New York — plan to include the measure as one of the ways they evaluate schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If you want achievement every year you have to have attendance almost every day,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that has pushed for a greater emphasis on absenteeism. New York City, she added, was “one of the first [districts] in the nation to realize they had a problem.”

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has made improved attendance a central goal of its two most ambitious — and expensive — school-improvement efforts.

Since 2014, the city education department has transformed over 200 schools into “community schools” designed to remove obstacles that can lead to chronic absenteeism — anything from severe asthma and mental health issues, to a lack of clean clothes. The schools were outfitted with medical and dental services, nutrition and fitness programs, tutoring, job training and — in some cases — washers and dryers.

Among them are 94 low-performing schools (including Cypress Hills) that are also part of de Blasio’s $582 million “Renewal” turnaround program, which provides coordinators to manage a host of new support services and tools to track student-level attendance data.

Officials say that broader school improvement efforts — everything from adding evening classes for parents or sending in teacher coaches — should ultimately boost attendance. But they have also zeroed in on specific strategies for drawing students into school.

Community and Renewal schools use customized software that pulls student attendance data out of creaky city databases, allowing school attendance teams to quickly identify which students are racking up lots of absences. Then team members, including nonprofit staffers brought in by the city, visit the homes of chronically absent students, call their parents, or set up counseling sessions.

At P.S. 61 in the Bronx, school officials have started a “walking school bus” where volunteers meet chronically absent students at neighborhood checkpoints then walk them to school. The effort helps students whose parents have health problems or otherwise struggle to drop them off, said Stacey Campo, P.S. 61’s community school director, and “it’s creating some excitement about coming to school.”

City officials have also experimented with sending home postcards that show how many days a student has missed compared to the school’s average. The simple intervention, which the city tried at 52 schools, helped drive down absenteeism, according to Chris Caruso, the education department’s executive director of community schools.

The percentage of students considered chronically absent at Renewal schools compared to the citywide rate. (Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Caruso said that because academic measures like test scores take longer to budge, a school’s chronic absenteeism rate gives an early indication of whether turnaround efforts are taking hold.

Though the Renewal program has had mixed success raising test scores and graduation rates, the share of students who are chronically absent at those schools has fallen by just under 8 percentage points since 2015. (Still, the schools’ 36 percent chronic absenteeism rate is significantly higher than the 26 percent citywide rate.)

“This is generally a pretty sticky measure that’s difficult to move,” Caruso said, “and we’re seeing real progress.”

In the past, schools had little sense of how many students were missing many days of class.

As recently as ten years ago, most schools focused on the percentage of students who showed up on a given day — known as average daily attendance — not how many days individual students were missing.

That made it difficult to identify students who were gone a few days each month — an easily overlooked occurrence that can balloon into a major problem. It also left schools with a potentially deceptive statistic: A third of students could be chronically absent, yet a school’s average daily attendance could still be 90 percent.

“The entire attendance system was measuring the wrong thing,” said Kim Nauer, the education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “They had no way of seeing whether any individual kid was missing too much school and putting them at risk.”

In 2008, Nauer published a report that was among the first to reveal the scale of New York City’s chronic absenteeism problem. At the time, over 28 percent of students were chronically absent.

Partly in response to the report, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a series of initiatives to combat absenteeism.

The most effective intervention was pairing chronically absent students with “Success Mentors” — school personnel or volunteers who regularly checked in with students and helped coax them back to school. One study found that students with mentors gained nearly two weeks of school on average and were more likely to remain in school three years later. Today, 115 community schools continue to use that approach, a number city officials said would likely increase to 150 this school year.

Under de Blasio, chronic absenteeism has continued on a gradual downward path that began with Bloomberg. Last school year the rate ticked up slightly to 26 percent, but that is still about 2 percentage points lower than when de Blasio took office.

Still, individual schools often struggle to combat chronic absenteeism, which largely stems from forces beyond their control.

At P.S. 211 in the Bronx, for instance, school staffers repeatedly tried to convince a mother with substance abuse issues that she shouldn’t keep her two children at home to help her with laundry and other chores.

“We would make connections with mom and things would go great for a week,” said Jorge Blau, who helps oversee the attendance program, “and then we’d have to start over again.”

Blau, who works for The Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit embedded in the school, said his team was able to help reduce the number of days the students were absent from about 40 down to 20 or so — an improvement, but still a serious threat to their learning.

“Did they come to school more? Yes,” Blau said. “But we didn’t get them over the hump.”

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.