Even as CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has pledged to find ways to reduce chronic truancy and absenteeism in Chicago Public Schools, her administration is quietly grappling with the fact that the problem is getting worse in the elementary grades.

Last year, a higher portion of students in kindergarten through eighth grade were absent from class – both with excused and unexcused absences – than in each of the previous two years, according to internal CPS data obtained by Catalyst Chicago and confirmed by the district.

Some 22.5 percent of kindergartners, for example, were considered chronically truant in the 2012 school year, a rate that was 4.6 percentage points higher than two years earlier. Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent of kindergartners were chronically absent in the 2012 school year, compared to 16.6 percent two years prior.

Students are considered “chronically truant” after missing at least 5 percent of the previous 180 school days — or 9 days in a school year – without a valid excuse. “Chronically absent” students, meanwhile, have missed at least 18 school days, whether excused or unexcused.

In a Wednesday phone interview, Aarti Dhupelia, CPS’s Chief Officer of College and Career Success, who also oversees truancy and absenteeism, said the district is still trying to understand what caused last year’s spike (click to see larger graphics).

“Obviously, with any attendance issue, we’re concerned with a trend in the wrong direction in any grade level,” she said. “The issues will vary school by school. We’re seeing that as we engage with schools and try to work with them on attendance and truancy challenges this year, in some cases it’s because of safety concerns; in others it’s lack of parent engagement.”

Dhupelia could not name any specific schools where the problem was most acute last year, although she explained that there are a number of schools “quite frankly across the city where we have seen specific challenges.” She did not provide information on chronic absences and truancy rates for this school year, but assured that internal monthly reports at the school level show “promising trends” so far.

Those who work with low-income families in Chicago say there isn’t enough public awareness of the importance of attendance in the earliest grades and that CPS needs to find non-punitive ways to work with parents who struggle to get their children to school.

“So many parents are focused on other needs that aren’t being met, like housing. Families are losing their homes, their apartments, could be living with a friend,” says Gloria Harris, a parent trainer at Community Organizing and Family Issues, known as COFI. “And with all the school closings, a lot of kids are no longer in walking distance of their schools. I think if a student is missing too many days in one week, we should find out what’s going on with that family.”

Positive trends at high schools

Catalyst learned about the increase in chronic absenteeism and truancy in the elementary grades after obtaining a copy of a December 2013 PowerPoint presentation that was marked “DRAFT and Internal Confidential” earlier this year.  Two of the slides specifically address chronic truancy and chronic absences, with charts showing the year-by-year statistics by grade level.

On Wednesday afternoon – nearly two months after Catalyst began asking about this trend – CPS officials confirmed that the data on chronic absences was accurate and provided updated statistics on chronic truancy. (The bar graphs contain information that has been verified by CPS.)

The data do show a positive trend: there have been significant reductions in chronic absenteeism and truancy in the high school grades, when students are the most likely to skip class. Nearly 62 percent of school seniors, for example, were considered chronically truant in the 2010-11 school year; that number dropped to 53 percent last year. Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism among seniors dropped by 6.5 percentage points to 47.5 percent.

Dhupelia pointed to two potential factors that have improved high school attendance: the district’s emphasis on improving freshmen “on-track” rates, which stress the importance of attendance and appear to have ripple effects on later year; and changes to the disciplinary policy made in the summer of 2012 that resulted in fewer suspensions at the high school level.

“We’ve made more significant efforts at the high school level over the past few years, using restorative practices as an alternative to suspensions,” she explained. “Suspensions do count as absences, after all.”

Detailed suspension data released earlier this year shows a decrease in suspensions at the high school level; on the other hand, suspensions increased at every elementary grade level. 

The increased number of suspensions, then, could partially explain the spike in absenteeism in the elementary grades.

Not sharing information

Privately, those in community agencies who work with families say they wish it was easier to obtain real-time, school-level data from CPS – including from charter schools –to better focus their own efforts and find solutions for students. During the interview, Dhupelia said the district is interested in exploring ways to share the data without compromising students’ privacy.

“Given the types of things that contribute to students not attending school, you often do need community partners assisting in this effort,” she said.

In recent years, CPS has focused heavily on using its real-time data to hold schools accountable for a variety of measures of student academic progress, including the much-lauded “on-track” rate  that helps determine whether high school freshmen are on track to graduate.

But that philosophy apparently has yet to be applied across the board, to all metrics.

Case in point: CPS has not shared the data in the December 2013 report with a state-appointed task force that is currently examining the issue and preparing policy recommendations for the state Legislature on how to ensure more students go to school.

The Truancy in Chicago Public Schools Task Force –which includes CPS administrators – was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation on how absenteeism and truancy is crippling the education of the city’s youngest children. Catalyst first reported on chronic absenteeism in the early grades in 2011.

“We’re trying to make sure our recommendations are grounded in research, in the information available to us that drove the joint resolution in the first place, so we’re consistent in what we’re saying, regarding truancy and excessive absenteeism,” says Antoinette Taylor, who chairs the task force.  “One of the things we’ve been discussing is the need for preventative measures for families, for students and even for schools, to see how we can intervene before we get to that point [of chronic absences or truancy].”

On March 11, Catalyst began requesting interviews with CPS administrators about the increase in chronic truancy and absenteeism en the elementary grades, and seeking school-level breakdowns of the data. Catalyst filed a formal request for the data under the state’s Freedom of Information Act on March 25. Last week, after the legal deadline for releasing this data had passed, Catalyst asked the Illinois Attorney General to review whether CPS is in violation of the state’s public records laws.

On Wednesday, CPS spokesman Joel Hood said the district strives to be “pretty transparent about our data.” He said that the school-level data has been held up to address concerns about student privacy, verification of numbers and because “it’s not something we can turn around so quickly.”

CPS has still not released the data to Catalyst.

Fear of “embarrassing” principals

One reason for CPS’s reluctance to make the information public may be to avoid “shaming” or “embarrassing” principals at schools with high levels of chronic absenteeism or truancy, and because of worries that these principals will be “dis-incentivized” from accepting students who may be at risk of routinely missing school, including homeless students or those in temporary living situations, categorized as STLS.

Michael Seelig, another CPS administrator who sits on the task force, brought up both of these points during its April meeting.

“We want to be careful about putting this out there,” he said. “I just don’t want a principal to say, ‘I’m humming at 95 percent.’ I would never want them to shut the door [on students in temporary situations] to keep their numbers up.”

But Patricia Nix-Hodes, associate director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ Law Project, cautioned against making the assumption that homeless students are more likely to miss class. School districts, after all, are federally mandated to remove barriers to these students’ attendance.

“Oftentimes for individual students, being identified as STLS helps their attendance because they can get various services, including transportation that they might not otherwise be eligible for,” she says.

She added: “We don’t have the data to show what the truancy rate is for homeless students compared to the overall population.That’s something we have asked about and are interested in.”

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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