Of those missing elementary students, about 5,600 were coded by their schools as “unverified transfers.” That means that family members told schools their children were transferring, but the schools never received requests for student records from receiving schools or, if they did, didn’t record the requests.

If these students had been in high school, the School Board would have counted them as dropouts. However, the board contends that unverified transfers from elementary schools should not be included in new dropout calculations by the Consortium.

“There is just not an urgency in the elementary school to update the records to reflect where the kids transferred,” says Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen. In contrast, high schools have more reliable record keeping because they are held accountable for dropout rates, he says.

Donald Moore, executive director of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change, maintains the same standards should apply so that elementary schools aren’t tempted to disguise dropouts as unverified transfers.

The Consortium sparked a debate about elementary school dropouts when preliminary results of its new dropout study were published March 19 in Crain’s Chicago Business. In a first, the Consortium counted elementary-school dropouts, including students with unverified transfers.

CPS protested, arguing Hansen’s point about poor record keeping in elementary schools. After discussions with the School Board, the Consortium agreed to strike unverified transfers at all grade levels from the final version of the study, which has not yet been released. That reduced the rate by about five percentage points for every year in the study.

The Consortium study looks at elementary students beginning at age 13, the age of most 8th-graders. Catalyst requested the analysis of 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders.

Meanwhile, CPS scrambled to determine what had happened to the 520 8th-graders marked last school year as “lost.” The board called the schools, homes and relatives of 300 of those students. In 80 percent of the cases, Hansen reports, it was told that the students had transferred to suburban or private schools. “Rarely was the story, ‘He’s dropped out, and he’s living at home.'” However, CPS did not contact the schools to which the students reportedly had transferred.

“I’m sure many of the kids who have ‘lost’ codes have transferred to other school districts,” says Consortium Deputy Director John Easton. “Unfortunately, there isn’t good systematic data to verify this.” The Consortium’s study will not take the board’s phone calls into account, he says.

Hansen says that central office recognizes that school clerks need better training in student records. “And we have to find a way [to make] elementary schools realize the importance of this data,” he adds.

Elaine Allensworth, author of the Consortium study, doubts that Chicago’s record keeping is any worse than that in other large, urban school systems. “If you can’t trust these dropout rates, then you can’t trust any dropout rates that you might read,” she says. “It’s difficult to keep student records clean.”

Elementary schools contacted by CATALYST had varying responses to the Consortium’s findings about their dropout/lost student rates. (The Consortium compiled school-by-school data from 1997-98 to 1999-00 at CATALYST’s request; the data are posted online at www.catalyst-chicago.org.) Some principals talked about the difficulty of keeping troubled kids in schools. Some declined to comment. Others insisted that students recorded as lost had, in fact, transferred.

Principal Helen Johnson of Anderson Middle School in Chicago Lawn finds students are most likely to drop out “where the family has broken down, and the youngster is left to fend for himself, or the family is totally dysfunctional.” Anderson lost 40 students over three years, or about 2 percent of its 7th- and 8th-graders.

Principal Louis S. Hall Jr. of Raymond elementary in Douglas has seen kids refuse to come even when their parents tell them to. “These kids will seldom tell you the truth: They’ve joined a gang. Some kids will be honest with you, ‘I’ve fooled around all these years, and now the work is too difficult for me.'” Raymond lost 19 students over three years, for an average rate of 5 percent.

Principal Mary Ann Pollett of Montefiore, a Near West Side school for boys with emotional and behavioral disorders, finds her kids are easy targets for gang recruitment. “They can attract them with drugs, clothes, fancy sports shoes,” she says. Montefiore lost 12 students in three years, for an average rate of 9 percent.

The Longwood campus of Chicago International Charter School had one of the highest elementary dropout/lost rates in the city, about 8 percent. Over the past three school years, it lost a total of 66 6th- 7th- and 8th-graders. Ben Linquist, who handles public relations for the charter, declined to comment.

Arai Middle School in Uptown lost 69 students, for a 4 percent rate. Principal Patricia Monroe-Taylor also declined to comment.

Dixon elementary, an award-winning school in Chatham, recorded 60 “lost” students from grades 6 to 8, for a 6 percent rate. Most of them were 8th-graders, and over half were over-age for their grade level, according to the Consortium.

Principal Joan Crisler says that many of her students transfer to suburban or private schools without notifying Dixon, and that the school often does not receive requests for student records from those new schools. “I have never had an experience of someone 8th grade or younger just dropping out of school,” she says.

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