But only fragments of that plan were ever attempted, and within a year, it was quietly shelved.
"This project was a victim of incessant reorganizing and not being a priority. It never went anywhere," said former CPS Office of Student Support and Engagement leader Paige Ponder, whose division helped oversee the effort before she left the district in frustration. Truancy and absenteeism are "such an enormous, complex issue. But the money, the will, the leadership just wasn't there to tackle it in a sustained way."
Only now, in response to a recent Tribune investigation, are CPS officials vowing to tackle a problem that cripples student achievement and costs the district millions in funding keyed to attendance.
The architect of the 2010 plan was then-Chief Administrative Officer Robert Runcie, who left Chicago the next year to become superintendent of the Broward County, Fla., school system. It was completed in July 2010, but the city schools' CEO at the time, Ron Huberman, stepped down four months later, not long after former Mayor Richard Daley announced his own retirement.
Terry Mazany, who took over as interim schools CEO, told the Tribune that he was never informed of the 2010 attendance report. "I did not see that at all," Mazany said. Runcie and Huberman declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the district's current leader, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said Runcie's project proposal "was recently shared with the CEO and will be part of her review process" as Byrd-Bennett moves to address truancy and absenteeism in the coming weeks and months.
Record of failure
The extensive and detailed attendance data marshaled by Runcie in 2010 mirror and confirm the Tribune's recent findings on the epidemic of empty desks in Chicago elementary schools. Counting truancy, excused absences and enrollment gaps, the newspaper found, nearly 32,000 K-8 students — or about 1 in 8 — missed a month or more of the 2010-11 school year.
Like the Tribune, Runcie calculated the financial cost to the district of the chronic absenteeism, concluding that Chicago would garner $11.5 million in additional state funds if citywide attendance grew by just 1 percent. That is higher than the $9 million figure reckoned by the Tribune.
The district loses $111 each day a student is absent, Runcie's analysis found.
Runcie's report and other confidential program documents also linked chronic absenteeism to academic failure in the early grades and, ultimately, a higher risk of dropping out in high school.
Students in grades 3-8 who missed at least 10 percent of their school days were 10 to 30 percent more likely than their peers to fail at least one of the four benchmark exams in math and reading, Runcie's analysis found.
In high school, chronic truants had four times as many misconduct reports and were three times more likely to drop out, Runcie's report said.
The report also confirmed the Tribune's finding that the district had steadily choked off and abandoned numerous attendance-boosting programs amid turnover among top administrators. The district dismissed its cadre of about 150 truancy officers amid 1992 budget cuts.
Before Runcie wrote his initial proposal in 2010, the district's paltry efforts to contact chronically absent youth had been overseen by unevenly trained CPS administrators and largely performed by contractors who had "limited success" and didn't start work until months into the school year, his report said. There was "no districtwide accountability" for attendance.
The district also failed to properly account for how it spent state anti-truancy grants totaling $5 million per year, Runcie's report said.
Like the Tribune, Runcie identified ways that outside government agencies could better coordinate with CPS. His report suggested the state Department of Children and Family Services did not have a clear procedure for working with the schools on the most serious truancy cases, for example.