Friday, February 21, 2020

AV #206 - Tackling attendance & absenteeism in our struggling high schools

Promising efforts captured in The Make-or-Break Year show schools can make a difference

The Make-or-Break Year, the terrific new book about Chicago Public Schools’ effort to support ninth graders during the difficult transition into high school, provides lessons–and above all, hope—for Colorado’s struggling high schools. What follows in Part I are quotes from Emily Krone Phillips’ narrative, with a focus on one key issue for high school freshmen: attendance

In Part II, we can see that our low-performing high schools recognize that better attendance is critical. No need to read any further if such schools do not identify attendance as a priority. Most all do, as you will see from their Unified Improvement Plans

All of us eager to see such schools improve can learn from Chicago’s story. And I am confident you will be struck, even inspired, by the remarkable commitment of principals, teachers, and staff—three cheers to them!—to get their 9th graders to show up and make it to class–the first step to success.    

I.  The Make-or-Break Year: What schools do matters. 
Poor attendance is not “out of our hands.”

At an Aurora Public School board meeting last October, Superintendent Rico Munn reported on Aurora Central High School’s progress—prior to the district and school’s November meeting before the State Board of Education. His 64-page report made frequent reference to attendance; see Addendum A for excerpts. Discussion that followed included this comment from APS Board President Marques Ivey:

 “There’s a couple of things that are really not within the control of the school, which is attendance and tardiness, to an extent. You have high school students … [when dealing with issues of truancy] and you talk to those students, some would rather play video games.”[v] 
The Make-or-Break Year offers Ivey and school boards a more hopeful take on what high schools can control. This book asks us to avoid the all-too-common excuses for woeful attendance rates in these low-performing schools: “It’s just the kids. And their families. They won’t come. They don’t care.”

Emily Krone Phillips relates Chicago Public Schools’ initiative, Freshman OnTrack (FOT), over a ten year-period, from 2007 to 2016. A University of Chicago study[vi] had revealed that “students who passed their courses in ninth grade almost always went on to graduate.” The narrative takes us inside schools acting on that finding, striving to get their freshman to show up and make it through the year. We follow several students, their ups and downs. Some make it through, but not all. It is one reason the book feels so real.   

My two takeaways from Phillips' account are simple. 1) It is our job to know our students, to keep track of their progress, to connect to their family, and to help our 14-year old boys and girls succeed in their all-important ninth grade year. 2) This cannot happen without their showing up. To that end, if necessary, we must take extraordinary steps to reach out to these kids and their families. But it can be done.   

The Introduction immediately addresses the issue of what schools can or cannot control. Chicago’s effort began in large part due to research disproving the “conventional wisdom” about dropouts. They leave school, the study found, “because, for a constellation of reasons, they struggle at age fourteen and don’t receive enough support to bounce back. High school educators have no control over the background characteristic of the students who arrive at their doorstep, but they can influence how students perform once they get there. The research suggested that freshman year offered a crucial intervention point for those working to reduce the number of dropouts” (p. 5).

Chapter One underlines this point. Studies showed “students … chugging along nicely before high school, and then, then seemingly without warning, they dropped off an academic cliff.” It is not true, the data revealed, “that dropouts were fundamentally and academically different from graduates” (p. 26). Leading to this insight. “… If most dropouts were virtually indistinguishable from graduates until they entered high school, then perhaps it wasn’t the actual high school dropout themselves who were the problem but rather the actual high schools, or something about the transition to them” (p. 27).

Highlights, especially on attendance  

Excerpts from THE MAKE-OR-BREAK YEAR - Copyright © 2019 by EMILY KRONE PHILLIPS.  Reprinted by permission of The New Press. (All emphasis mine)

p. 15 – Captures the enormous commitment required by adults. “Through it all, a dedicated group of teachers, staff, and administrators fight to keep all of (the ninth graders) on-track. They meet regularly to problem solve around individual kids, stage interventions, call home, and give second, third, and fourth chances—all based on the philosophy that just because some freshmen arrived at school not knowing how to be a good student, that does not mean that they never get the chance to become one.” 

p. 33 – How grim the numbers can be. (Freshmen teachers in our struggling high schools will recognize this reality.) “… one of the biggest problems in high school was just how easy it was for Malik and other students to skip class, itself an indication of larger pattern of benign neglect, if not outright negligence…  Omar [had] a 95 percent attendance rate in elementary school but missed 27 of 90 days in the first semester in of ninth grade… Oscar tested two grade levels ahead in math and had perfect attendance in elementary school, but failed freshman-year algebra after missing 39 days of class second semester.”

Sharon Holmes – one of many exceptional teachers we follow throughout the book
   She was “a teacher who conceptualized her role broadly. Her job wasn’t simply about teaching students how to write a five-paragraph essay, it was also about convincing students that they belonged in school. To that end she tried to make every interaction with students a positive one…’’
   No wonder the principal asked her to lead the school’s “Freshmen Success Team, a group of teachers responsible for ensuring that every ninth grade earned enough credits to advance to sophomore year” (p. 59). We see her guiding her Team “to parse the data on freshman grades and absences. The goal was to use the data to pinpoint how best to get it to them. An English teacher, Holmes knew her Salinger. She thought the job of a freshman teacher should be to serve as their ‘catcher in the rye.’… Holmes believed that many of the students who arrived at Tilden had simply never learned how to be students, and it was her job to help them get there, rather than bemoan the fact they weren’t there yet” (pp. 145-146).

Again, the larger theme: Before blaming the student, first ask: what can the school do?

   “David was a kid who had missed more days than he had attended, with a mom who to date had been more of an adversary than a partner in the education process.
   “To be sure, aspects of David’s home life presented him with extra challenges. And yet this habit of pathologizing struggling students takes the onus off of educators and policymakers to examine how their own practice and systems might be contributing to that failure. It also ignores the fact that transitions generally, whether from middle school to high school or high school to college, represent challenges to students from many different backgrounds and in many different settings. [The research] had found that ninth grade in particular posed a stumbling block for teenagers … across the United States” (p. 139).

Too often students see their schools this way:

1) “Most of his teachers didn’t care whether he showed up or not, Malik insisted. He was particularly negative about his English teacher. ‘He’s a white teacher. … He’s not too much worried about whether we get ahead in life or not. Every day no more than ten people come. He doesn’t seem to care’” (p. 33).

 2) “Though it wasn’t a large school – (230 freshmen) – it was easy to pass through Hancock anonymously. When students were absent, students received a ‘robocall.’ If they were absent 10 days, they received a certified letter at home. Nothing felt personalized. Most of the students did not know most of the staff. ‘I never met my counselor,’ one student recalled” (p. 115).

This changed with the Freshman OnTrack (FOT) initiative and the leadership of Principal Pam Glynn. 

    Gayle Neely, the FOT coordinator, “began working with those students who were flagged as orange, blue, or yellow on the student Success Reports from Central Office. Blue meant they had a D or lower during the first quarter, orange meant they had missed three or more days of school during the first quarter; yellow meant they had done both. She would try to identify the sources of their struggle. ‘I would ask them a series of questions to get to the root of the problem,’ Neely said. ‘Was it home related? A learning disability? An issue with a teacher?’” (p. 117).

Excerpts from THE MAKE-OR-BREAK YEAR - Copyright © 2019 by EMILY KRONE PHILLIPS.  Reprinted by permission of The New Press.

PHONE HOME, or text, or call the student directly, or … do whatever we need to do!

   At Tilden High - Ms. Dominguez is an attendance coordinator, “responsible for monitoring and preventing absenteeism. Students who were chronically absent were usually most in danger of becoming a ‘street kid’ if no one from school intervened. By monitoring attendance, she was the de facto monitor of students’ attachment to school, which made her a key line of defense against students’ dis-identification with school.”
   “…By 9:00 a.m. she would have an electronic attendance record for the day. Then she and other staff members would divvy up names of absent students—often as many as 80 or 90 in total—and start making phone calls to the parent or guardian of each and every one….”
   “… When she couldn’t reach a parent of a chronically absent student, she’d track down a friend and ask him to send an inquiring text. She offered bribes and prizes for students who pulled their attendance up. She grabbed students in the lunchroom and probed for the reason behind the absence: Trouble at home? Lack of bus money? Childcare duties?” (pp. 67-68).
   What motivated the 39-year-old Dominguez? It was personal, given her own experience attending high school in Chicago—two decades earlier. “Like them she had felt entirely invisible in high school. And when she had made bad choices, no one had bothered to put up a fight.” She recalls dropping out of high school; she merely had to fill out a form. “No one even blinked,” she remembered.
   “Now, when students told her they were dropping out, she refused to let them. ‘No. Nope. That’s not a choice,’ she would say. ‘If we aren’t the right fit for you, find somewhere else. Go to an alternative setting. Somewhere’” (pp. 68-69).

  At North Grand High - Principal Asuncion Ayala explained … that if a student was late or didn’t show up during first period, someone from her staff made a call home. To every missing kid. Every single day.
   “Who makes those calls? What budget line do you pay for that out of?” [she was asked].
   “This is a family. We make those calls,” insisted Ayala. “My clerks make the calls, my counselors make the calls, my teachers make the calls, I make the calls.
   “That was a moment,” [a co-director observed]. “… the group realized she doesn’t have any extra resources, but she has just organized the building to get this result, and when kids show up, they do a lot better” (p. 175).  
Getting in your face – GOTCHA!

    “Sometimes parents are a good thing,” one FOT team member commented at a meeting, “but I know we call these parents every day and no one picks up. We call Jakiyah’s mom every single day,’
   “Also, I’m thinking we need to start calling kids directly,” Holmes suggested. “For example, Alyssa has not been here in two weeks. We called her mom. No answer. But then Jordan told me Alyssa was on Snapchat eating an Italian beef! So I got her number from Jordan and just called her directly. I think we may need to start harassing them ourselves” (p. 247).

Excerpts from THE MAKE-OR-BREAK YEAR - Copyright © 2019 by EMILY KRONE PHILLIPS.  Reprinted by permission of The New Press.

FOT’s work is a rebuke to the defeatist notion that schools cannot make a difference. Its success actually reassures schools and teachers of their influence.

   “At a time when teachers were struggling to meet the nation’s growing expectations for what schools and teachers could accomplish—particularly schools and teachers working with children living in poverty—Freshman OnTrack made teachers feel empowered and successful” (p. 189).
   Janice K. Jackson, now the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was then a principal at one of the high schools in the Network for College Success, all committed to FOT.  “As a principal,” she said, “I was always trying to put in front of my teachers things that were within our sphere of influence, because working in … a tough community there are so many things that are outside of our control. When you find something you really can control and impact, as a principal, you have to really double down on that” (p. 189).


II. From each school’s most recent Unified Improvement Plan.

Abraham Lincoln High School (2019 UIP)[i]
“Retention of students at ALHS is decreasing year over year at each grade level. Student attendance rate has remained consistently low, between 84% and 86% over the last five years. Opportunity for all students to feel like they belong within the classroom and outside of the classroom. High quality student engagement must be implemented and provided for all students.
“Summary of Attendance: Attendance at ALHS dropped overall by 1.3% last year. As highlighted in the attached plan, school leadership has prioritized building attendance support systems as well as focusing on the use of engaging classroom instruction, adult presence throughout the building, and building strong relationships with students as key strategies to support increasing student attendance and engagement in school.”

Adams City High School (2018 UIP)[ii]
STUDENT ENGAGEMENT: Inconsistent culturally responsive practices to engage students in the classroom, maintain positive attendance trends and respond to student lack of attendance.
“The target of achieving 95% attendance in 2017-2018 was not met. The average attendance was 85.2 (2017) and 86.9 (2018). Although we did not achieve our goal in increasing the attendance rate to 95%, we had a slight increase. The attendance team conducted home visits, parent meetings and monitored the attendance at each grade level. Persistent barriers to achieving our attendance goals include the need to create a school culture in which urgency, attendance, student engagement and timeliness are communicated and enforced priority.”

“The biggest concern is that the school's 9th grade attendance is at only 83 percent.”[iii] Aurora Central SBE Progress Monitoring Summary

Aurora Central High School (2018 UIP)[iv]
“The Average Daily Attendance rate at Aurora Central High School is higher than what has been seen in recent years; it is currently at 85.99% for the year-to-date. Additionally, chronic absenteeism has been a persistent challenge for many years. This rate is down to 19.6% (to 418 students) from 43.4% (1,119 students) from the 2016-17 school year. Although 
attendance rates are increasing, they remain well below the desired rate.
“Student Engagement: Over the past few years, the average attendance rate at Aurora Central High School has remained as a Priority Performance Challenge…. “The 2016- 2017 YTD attendance rate was 77.4% and 85.1% in 2017-18.
“Additionally, severe absenteeism rates have decreased from 43.4% in 2016-17 to 31.6% in 2017-18. [See box for its more recent report.] This is a notable trend because schools that consistently average 92% or higher attendance rates have higher achievement rates and significantly lower disciplinary issues.”

Chronic Absenteeism at Aurora Central High
   Aurora’s presentation to the APS school board on Sept. 3, 2019, had more disturbing numbers on chronic absenteeism at ACHS; “the positive improvements have fallen off in the past year.” The graph (p. 15) showed the rate of students who were chronically absent (missing 10% or more) to be over 60% in 2016 and 2017. While dropping to about 54% in 2018, it climbed again in 2019. [vii]

Central High School (UIP 2018-19)[viii]

[COMMENT: Of the six high schools in this review, Central High’s 21-page UIP was the only one that failed to mention attendance rates or chronic absenteeism as a concern. As Central and its district moved to a 4-day week in 2018-19—reducing the school year from 166 days the previous year to 148—it would be valuable to see if attendance improved. Obviously, with a shorter school year, the percentage of days present matters even more. 
      Central did report improved dropout rates for 2018, but not for 2019.]
“Postsecondary & Workforce Readiness: The dropout rate decreased from 7.9% in 2016 to 5.3% in 2017, then decreased to 3.6% in 2018. but remains below the state expectation of 2%.” [It climbed to 4.2% in 2019.]

Gateway High School (UIP 2018)[ix]

“Post-Secondary & Workforce Readiness: Dropout Rate Trends: The dropout rate has been decreasing in the last three years. In 2016, the dropout rate was 6.2%; in 2017, it was 6.5%; and in 2018, it was 3.9%. There are three other data points that help to understand the dropout rate and one action step: ADA [Average Daily Attendance], Chronic Absenteeism, the number of students that are on track to graduate, and a system for proper coding.
“Average Daily Attendance has decreased and then increased. In 2016-17 ADA was 87.5%; in 2017-18, ADA was 85.3%; and then in the current year, 2018-2019, it is at 87.3%, which is comparable to where we were in 2016-2017. “Chronic Absenteeism: The number of students that are severely and moderately chronically absent has increased and then decreased in the last three years. In 2016, there were 486 severe chronically absent students; in 2017, there were 570; and in 2018, there were 380. There has been a steady decrease in the number of students that are Moderately Chronic absentees: There were 393 in 2016, 388 in 2017, and 305 in 2018.”

Manual High School (UIP 2018)[x]

 “Student Engagement: The percent of students meeting the DPS attendance threshold of 93% was 24.35% in 2018. Currently, 36.6% of students are meeting the threshold. This does not yet meet the DPS standard of 45%. Current year data indicates no significant difference between grade levels (9th: 41%, 10th: 36%, 11th: 34%, 12th: 35%).
“INCREASE CAPACITY OF LIGHT TEAM TO SUPPORT STUDENT SEL AND ACADEMIC NEEDS:  Although the LIGHT Team is already working to support students SEL and academic needs, we must continue to refine this existing system in order to ensure that the team is adequately addressing the significant barriers to students [sic] attendance, academics and engagement.
“ANNUAL PERFORMANCE TARGETS: 2018-2019: Percent Meeting DPS Attendance Target: 45%
2019-2020: Percent Meeting DPS Attendance Target: 50%”


See Addendum B for attendance and truancy data on these schools over the past two years, evidence that the problem only grew worse last year. All the more reason to make improved attendance a priority.


Addendum A - Attendance as a central issue for struggling high schools

One Example: Aurora Central High School

All taken from “Aurora Central Pathways Recommendation,”[xi] presented by Superintendent Rico Munn, Oct. 1, 2019, to the Board of Education of Aurora Public Schools.

*Accurate? CDE attendance data for ACHS reported the attendance rate was only 79.2% for 2018-19, a decline from 80.6% in 2017-18.
Average daily attendance rates increased from 79% in the 2016-17 school year to 83%* in the 2018-19 school year, yet staff are aware that attendance can improve and believe more frequent house meetings and monitoring structures this year will help” (p. 29).                                                
Leading Indicators ● Average Daily Attendance: + 3.2 ppts. since 14-15 (p. 43).
Innovation Plan: Culture of Performance
Challenges and opportunities
Continue to enhance attendance work with proactive approach beyond just re-engagement (p. 44).

Overall analysis (p. 52 of presentation)
Continue leveraging Innovation Plan and existing work to:
Support improved culture through sustained implementation of House Model, Attendance Strategy, and work around Family & Community Engagement.
Continue to monitor on-track and college and career-readiness indicators.

Common Themes from Parents (p. 56)
Parents are being notified about student attendance
Lack of parent understanding of attendance policies and procedures

Common Themes from Staff (p. 57)
Improved attendance
Attendance and tardiness still an issue

Common Themes from Students (p. 58)
-Use class as an opportunity to improve attendance
-Explain or clarify expectations of Central’s norms and culture, especially for 9th grade students
-Attendance/Skipping classes is an issue
-Class sizes are too big
-Student absenteeism

Summary of Conclusions & Recommendations (p. 61)
From CDE Monitoring Report:
“Student attendance continues to be a significant struggle for the school and the school must continue to focus on increasing student attendance.”

on six urban high schools, all on the clock for (too many) years

Attendance and Truancy – (Hard to learn when you are not in class) - 2017-18 and 2018-19
The attendance rate was down at 4 schools and remained below 80% at Manual. The truancy rate increased at 5 schools. It is hard to analyze the change at Central High in Pueblo 60 as its school year was shortened by 18 days.* (The new 4-day week - 148 school days – began in the fall of 2018.)

Attendance Rate[xii]
Truancy Rate[xiii]
Truancy rate increased from 2018 to 2019


Adams 14
Adams City High**
Up 4.74
Aurora Central**
Up 1.43

Up 3.63
Abraham Lincoln
Up 0.81

Up 0.71
Pueblo 60



*2017-18: 5-day week - 166 school days, and thus difficult to compare to 2018-19: 4-day week - 148 school days.
**Total Student Days Unexcused Absent for all Students: ACHS–52,636 days; Adams High–39,177 days; Gateway–38,915 days.

Addendum C — Chronically Absent Rates

In these four districts, the deeply troubling story of chronic absences is bigger than these 6 schools.

The grim news about the high percentage of students with an “extreme chronic absent” rate goes well beyond these six schools inside these four districts. The pattern over three years in Adams 14, APS, DPS, and Pueblo 60 indicates how wide-spread the problem is. Over 30% of the students in grades 7-12. Two other good-sized districts, Harrison – 34.7% and Westminster - 31.4%, would belong in this group as well.

from the Colorado Department of Education[xiv] - Chronically Absent - past 3 years

Adams 14
Pueblo 60
*Am not including APS data as it looks unreliable. (2.99% in 2016-17?) When I query CDE, I am told these are the numbers the district provides. [xv] 

A more complete breakdown on 2018-19 data - 
Students with Chronic Absenteeism and Truancy Rate

# students with chronic absenteeism
Students Fall K-12 Enrollment[xvi]
Chronically Absent Rate[xvii]
Truancy rate
Students Habitually Truant (4 Unexcused Absences in 1 month)
Students Habitually Truant (10 Unexcused Absences in the School Year)
Adams 14
Pueblo 60
Additional recommended reading on student attendance, absenteeism, and what schools can do.

1.  “What are the factors that affect learning at your school?” by Lauren Bauer, Up Front, The Brookings Institute, Sept. 10, 2019.  
    Begins: “Reducing chronic absence and developing conditions for learning are instrumental to improving outcomes for students and can be improved through policy reform and leadership. Schools and educators have the power to improve both student attendance and conditions for learning.”

2.   “Millions of Students Are Chronically Absent Each Year. Improve School Conditions and More Kids Will Show Up, Report Argues,” by Mark Keierleber, The 74, Sept. 10, 2019

3.    From “Raising the Bar for Evidence in Education,” by Carly Robinson and Todd Rogers, Education Week, Oct. 30, 2019.
   “In our own work, we have spent the last six years studying how to reduce student absenteeism. Through two large-scale, preregistered RCTs (one with more than 28,000 K-12 students and another with almost 11,000 K-5 students), our research team found that sending mailings to parents several times over the course of the school year with personalized attendance information that dynamically targets key parental misbeliefs consistently reduces chronic absenteeism 10 percent to 15 percent. This research led to the creation of InClassToday, a program that partners with districts around the country to help them reduce student absenteeism by implementing this research-backed intervention.”


[vi] The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. For more on this research, see pages 4-5, 27-28. 30-31, and 42-43.
[xv] Chronically absent - from CDE -