Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett vowed Monday to move forcefully to address the city's crisis in K-8 truancy and absenteeism, declaring: "We must work to shut down the dropout pipeline."
She said that "while the district has not fully owned this problem in the past, we will own it now."
But these "incremental and tiny steps ... are not enough for the magnitude of our problem," Byrd-Bennett told a dropout prevention conference at the Union League Club of Chicago. "We need to find new ways to work together and engage other government agencies."
A Tribune series published last month found that nearly 32,000 K-8 students — or roughly 1 in 8 — missed four weeks or more of class during the 2010-11 school year as the cash-strapped district did little to stem the devastating problem.
The elementary grade absences were especially severe for African-American children and those with learning and emotional disabilities. For children born into poverty, the missed days threaten to swallow any hope for a better life, while the empty seats undermine efforts to boost achievement and cost the district millions in attendance-based funding.
"I was shocked when I read the series in the Chicago Tribune ... showing the extent of the truancy problem," House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, told the gathering of educators, politicians and community leaders Monday.
In response to the Tribune series, state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, has introduced a House resolution to create a task force on K-8 truancy that will include representatives from the governor's office, the Chicago mayor's office, city police, several other agencies and community groups.
The task force resolution is awaiting action in the House Rules Committee and likely will be voted on in January. Currie said Monday: "That resolution, I confidently predict, will pass."
Currie said she was heartened by Tribune reports on school districts across the state that are finding ways to stem K-8 absenteeism despite budget cuts and a sagging economy.
Galesburg, in west central Illinois, is among many cash-strapped districts that use truancy outreach workers, court interventions and civic awareness campaigns to bring kids back to school. Educators say similar methods could work in Chicago, which eliminated truancy officers two decades ago and makes little use of the courts or other government agencies to attack chronic truancy and absenteeism.
"I was impressed with what is happening in Galesburg," where there is a "robust" set of programs in place to recapture absent and truant K-8 students, Currie said. "It seems to me that we ought to look across the board to find strategies."
But Currie cautioned that "the state's finances continue to be in a perilous state. ... Our receipts are down and we have huge backlogs of bills" that already have resulted in cuts to education and children's services.
Monday's conference, which included state Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Chicago school board members Andrea Zopp and Jesse Ruiz, unveiled a study for the nonprofit Alternative Schools Network detailing the bleak future of the Chicago area's high school dropouts.
Youths who leave school without a diploma have substantially lower earnings and are more likely to wind up on public assistance or be incarcerated, creating an economic drag on the region, according to the study.
While most people think of the truancy problem as primarily facing high school students, "there is an equally daunting crisis facing our elementary schools," Byrd-Bennett told the roughly 275 people in attendance.
She said elementary students were staying away from school for a variety of reasons, ranging from bullying to intense poverty in families where youths stay home to care for younger siblings. Chronically absent K-8 students are far more likely to experience classroom failure and ultimately drop out, several national studies have shown.
Citing a report showing that in 2008-09, roughly 60,000 school-age Chicago youths were not enrolled or had officially dropped out before graduating from high school, Byrd-Bennett said: "There is a significant gap in the district's capacity to serve these students.
"We will participate in the task force" being convened by Chapa LaVia, Byrd-Bennett said. And she added: "Please, I implore you to help us do what's right for all our children, especially our lost children."