Authorities seek solutions for K-8 absenteeism in Chicago schools
As authorities move to address K-8 absenteeism and truancy in Chicago schools, where tens of thousands of elementary students miss a month or more of school each year, they may not have to look far for workable strategies.

Government agencies and community groups around the country — and even in Chicago neighborhoods — are implementing promising anti-truancy measures without significant additional spending or staff, Tribune interviews show.

On the Northwest Side, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association has reached into its own budget and initiated a program to hire and train a handful of parents who retrieve students absent from Ames Middle School and Kelvyn Park High School.

Michigan authorities, meanwhile, are reassigning state Department of Human Services social workers to troubled elementary schools in four large cities, where they provide services to the families of absent children.

And Baltimore is among the cities that allow impoverished families a grace period to assemble proof of residency and other nonmedical paperwork required for school enrollment. In Chicago, numerous children in grades K-8 miss weeks of school because of registration problems.

"Kids are out of school because the families can't spend $15 on a birth certificate — that is a ridiculous reason for a child not to be in school," said Laurene Heybach, director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

There isn't yet definitive data on the cost benefits and effectiveness of these and other strategies. Still, researchers say, school districts across Illinois and around the U.S. have shown promising results, often by simultaneously deploying an array of programs and interventions.

"This is a complex problem. It is unlikely that there is a magic bullet. You probably have to have a portfolio approach," said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which helps run a small CPS anti-truancy mentoring program called Check & Connect.

In Chicago, nearly 32,000 K-8 students — or roughly 1 in 8 — missed four weeks or more of class in the 2010-11 school year, a recently published Tribune analysis of internal city school attendance data found.

The absences, truancy and enrollment gaps cripple children's chances for a better future and cost the district millions in attendance-based funding, the Tribune found. The newspaper profiled youth who were kept home to care for younger siblings and children who lost months of class time as their families scrambled from home to home, fleeing foreclosure and debt.

The devastating pattern of missed classroom days was especially acute in impoverished African-American communities on the South and West sides, the Tribune found.

State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said it is critical that officials address the K-8 grade attendance crisis now because the city is planning to close dozens of under-enrolled elementary schools — many of them in the South and West side communities where elementary grade absenteeism is already disproportionately high.

The inevitable upheaval of children transferring from one school to another — and the longer distance they may have to travel to their new school — could "become a factor in increasing absenteeism," Collins said. Roughly two-thirds of K-8 students live within a half-mile of their school, but the rate of absenteeism rises the farther they have to travel, according to internal CPS data obtained by the Tribune.

In the wake of the Tribune's reporting, Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett assembled a team to find ways to reconnect youth to their schools, and state legislators moved to establish a task force to find solutions.

Experts and agencies from the Chicago police to the mayor to the state Department of Children and Family Services have said they are eager to join the panel, which is likely to begin work in January.

The task force, established by state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, "will look for best practices anywhere we can find them," she said.

One school district trying a variety of strategies is Baltimore, where authorities worked with foundations, researchers and other government agencies to cut in half the percentage of sixth- to eighth-graders who are absent for more than 20 days — from 34 percent in 2007 to 16 percent last year, according to that city's official data.

Schools in Baltimore team up with local churches and parent volunteers who hand out alarm clocks, clean uniforms, winter coats and even umbrellas. Child welfare caseworkers access attendance data for the youth they are monitoring, so they can intervene early if there are problems.

An attendance monitor is stationed in each elementary schoolhouse, and many follow up to make sure children are actually sick when their parents claim they are. One school even installed a washer and dryer and offers in-school dental services and free haircuts on Mondays.