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NCLB Outrages

Report Cites Chronic Absenteeism in City Schools

Ohanian Comment: There
is no mention of the fact that curriculum
matters. My guiding principle in working with
children of poverty who disliked school was to
change the curriculum. Students in the schools
listed below are in the schools with the
strictest adherence to scripts. Students with
the diverse troubles that travel with poverty
need the most diverse curriculum.

Corporate politicos and their Standardisto
partners would rather blame the parents and the
students. And base teacher pay on how well the
students with chronic absenteeism score on the
tests concocted by CTB McGraw-Hill folk in
Monterey, California.

It's the curriculum, stupid.

By Jennifer Medina

More than 90,000 of New York Cityâs elementary
school students â roughly 20 percent â 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.

âChronic absenteeism in elementary schools is
disproportionately a problem in poor and
minority communities and it immediately puts
students behind their middle-class peers,â
concludes the report, by the Center for New
York City Affairs at the New School. âThe
academic pressures build over time and build

The situation was worse in higher grades â 40
percent of high school students and 24 percent
of middle school students were absent for at
least a month â 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 Yorkâs A through F
grading system for public schools counts
attendance for 5 percent, often masking serious
problems; 75 elementary schools that earned Aâs
or Bâs 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
cityâs 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 â 10 consecutive days or 20
days over four months â 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 â 392
people tracking nearly 200,000 students with
serious attendance problems â and struggled to
cover broad swaths of the city from centralized
offices. Elayna Konstan, head of the Education
Departmentâs Office of School and Youth
Development, which includes attendance, said
that the city had readjusted the monitorsâ
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.

âYou are going to have pockets of students and
pockets of schools that have high rates of
absence, and we canât be afraid to go after
that,â Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said.
âThose 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.â

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 â 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.

âOther times, it was just that it was raining,â
Mr. Torres said. âI had to say, âI understand
that itâs raining, but thatâs not a reason not
to come to school.â And then I just had to get
them an umbrella. Sometimes itâs really just as
simple as that.â

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.

âIt really is about training a mind-set that
you need to be at school every day,â 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 schoolâs
entrance, and he plays basketball with
studentsâ fathers and grandfathers.

âThe most important thing is that it be a
comfortable place, and a place they look
forward to coming,â he said. âAnd itâs also
about making sure that everyone in the family
understands. The moment they donât show up,
call and ask why.â

— Jennifer Medina
New York Times


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