After the Illinois Legislature raised the compulsory school attendance age to 17 from 16, the School Board launched a media blitz to announce a new attendance and truancy policy that included a controversial provision requiring parents to sign a consent form before a child drops out.

Bill Leavy, executive director of Greater West Town Community Project, says he believes the law has at least lit a fire under schools to do more to keep kids from leaving.

But some kids who tried to get back in school initially had a difficult time doing so, he adds.

“Sixteen-year-olds had issues with where to go, who had the legal obligation to accept them back. They were batted around the system.”

Meanwhile, the board acknowledges it is doing little or nothing to monitor whether schools comply with its new policy, which also banned the practice of “pushing out” kids with excessive absences.

“I can’t say we have a system that strongly enforces [the policy],” says Linda Goodwin, the district’s interim director of dropout prevention and recovery, blaming “lack of manpower.”

But Goodwin declined to say how many consent forms the office has received, saying “what we have is not the true number.” Goodwin added that schools were instructed to fax completed and signed forms to the dropout office. At the end of each month, the forms are supposed to be compiled into a report. The board declined to provide those reports.

Technically, under the new policy the number of dropouts should equal the number of forms the district has in hand. Central office could not provide a count of dropouts to date, saying the board only collects the information at the end of the year.

Of 10 high school attendance coordinators surveyed by Catalyst Chicago, only one (Catalina Cardena at Graham High School, a special-education school) says she knew of or followed the protocol. Several coordinators said they mailed in the forms, kept them in students’ files at school or gave them to area instructional offices.

‘It’s not as easy to write them off’

In 2004, the board provided $1.7 million to nine social service agencies to work with schools to solve attendance and truancy problems. Since then, Ada S. McKinley, which was assigned to work with 12 schools, has dropped out of the initiative. Five agencies declined to return calls about the program.

Despite the CPS policy’s ban on “pushing out” students, at least one school acknowledged continuing the practice.

“Just before the end of the period, students with exceptional numbers of absences—20 or more—are dropped from the rolls,” says Eugene Matthews, attendance coordinator at Crane Tech Prep on the Near West Side. Those students are encouraged to come to an “attendance summit” at the school. “Students come with their parents, and if they sign an attendance contract we accept them back,” Matthews says.

Renee Joiner, vice president of human resources and community development for ChildServ, says schools are making “more effort to engage these students and families … and to get the kids re-enrolled.” ChildServ is working with Corliss, Washington, Chicago Vocational and Austin high schools; schools at the DuSable Campus; and Parkside, Goldblatt, Calhoun North, Marconi, Henson and Bradwell elementary schools.

The law forcing schools to keep students another year provides “more opportunity to work with them,” says Joiner. “It’s not as easy for the school and the parents to write these students off.”

But Valerie Pickett, a parent advocate who works on attendance at Michele Clark High School, says while social service agencies are doing a good job of setting up achievement plans for students and checking on them during home visits, the agencies need to do more, such as offering more counseling and after-school programs. “Don’t come in and slap their hands—give them something,” she says.

Another challenge is finding ways to help at-risk 16-year-olds who can no longer be sent to alternative programs. Juan-Carlos Ocon, dean of students at Juarez High School, says schools need better counseling to catch at-risk students earlier. Otherwise, he says, “It’s very difficult to bring them back.”

Returning dropouts typically have poor academic skills, giving schools a major disincentive to re-enroll them, says Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network. “You need to have ways to measure their progress separate from No Child Left Behind [requirements], or no one wants to deal with these kids”

Leavelle Abram, attendance coordinator and disciplinarian at Hirsch Metro High, says the school is now trying to keep kids in school by being proactive. “We try to identify kids at an earlier age, and we try to use preventative measures before its get to that point.”

Hirsch has local police and community residents come to school to talk to students about the importance of good attendance. And kids considered at-risk of dropping out or truancy receive weekly progress reports on academics and attendance.

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