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Report Cites Chronic Absenteeism in City Schools

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

by JENNIFER MEDINA More than 90,000 of New York City’s elementary school students – roughly 20 percent – missed at least a month of classes during the last school year, with attendance problems most acute in central Brooklyn, Harlem and the South Bronx, according to a report scheduled for release on Tuesday. “Chronic absenteeism in elementary schools is disproportionately a problem in poor and minority communities and it immediately puts students behind their middle-class peers,” concludes the report, by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. “The academic pressures build over time and build quickly.” The situation was worse in higher grades – 40 percent of high school students and 24 percent of middle school students were absent for at least a month – but the report focuses on elementary schools because absenteeism among young students is less widely discussed even though it is believed to worsen over time and lead to dropouts. Researchers call it an invisible problem, in part because accountability systems tend to emphasize standardized test scores, not attendance. For example, New York’s A through F grading system for public schools counts attendance for 5 percent, often masking serious problems; 75 elementary schools that earned A’s or B’s from the city last year had at least 30 percent of students missing at least 20 days of classes, the report says. Examining detailed attendance reports for the city’s nearly 1,500 public schools, the report found that in 124 elementary schools, 98 middle schools and 41 schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade, at least 30 percent of the students were chronically absent, defined as missing 20 days of the 185-day school year. (The report did not provide the number of high schools with such absentee rates.) The report is a one-year snapshot and does not include comparable historical data. But City Education Department officials said that attendance had improved under the Bloomberg administration. Using a different standard for chronic absences – 10 consecutive days or 20 days over four months – the rate has declined, to 9 percent in 2007-8 from 11 percent in 2004-5, according to the department. The city also employs attendance monitors, but the report said they were stretched thin – 392 people tracking nearly 200,000 students with serious attendance problems – and struggled to cover broad swaths of the city from centralized offices. Elayna Konstan, head of the Education Department’s Office of School and Youth Development, which includes attendance, said that the city had readjusted the monitors’ portfolios this year to give them narrower geographic turf. City officials said the responsibility for absenteeism lies chiefly with school principals, who are required by the state to submit attendance plans. “You are going to have pockets of students and pockets of schools that have high rates of absence, and we can’t be afraid to go after that,” Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said. “Those principals will be held accountable for that. At the same time, I think as a system you see that there are schools that are very attuned to their attendance needs.” Indeed, absenteeism varies widely across the city. In Bayside, Queens, a middle-class neighborhood with many single-family homes, about 5 percent of students in kindergarten through fifth grade were chronically absent, compared with 30 percent of those in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, where there are several public housing projects. A closer look at Morrisania reveals a wide range of absentee rates – and strategies for dealing with them. At Public School 55, where 20 percent of the students were chronically absent, the principal, Luis Torres, said he had worked to expand a school health clinic so children would not have to miss a full day to visit the doctor. He also hired an outreach counselor to work with immigrant parents to explain that every school day really mattered. “Other times, it was just that it was raining,” Mr. Torres said. “I had to say, ‘I understand that it’s raining, but that’s not a reason not to come to school.’ And then I just had to get them an umbrella. Sometimes it’s really just as simple as that.” But seemingly simple problems are not so simple to solve. At Public School 146, one and a half miles from P.S. 55, 36 percent of the students missed at least 20 days last year, and the principal said absences routinely spiked on Mondays and Fridays. The authors of the report hypothesized that Public School 2, also in Morrisania, had a high rate of chronic absences last year, more than 40 percent, because it moved to a new building. And nearby at Public School 140, attendance averaged 94 percent in September and October but dropped to 80 percent in June. “It really is about training a mind-set that you need to be at school every day,” said Paul Cannon, principal of P.S. 140, where overall attendance improved to 90 percent last year from 85 percent in 2002-3. Each day, his attendance officer calls the parents of every absent student. Parents must bring in airplane tickets before pulling children out for days or weeks at a time. Mr. Cannon has set up a living room-like space with couches and a coffee table at the school’s entrance, and he plays basketball with students’ fathers and grandfathers. “The most important thing is that it be a comfortable place, and a place they look forward to coming,” he said. “And it’s also about making sure that everyone in the family understands. The moment they don’t show up, call and ask why.”

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absenteeism, Dropouts