Chicago officials try to tackle K-8 grade truancy crisis

Top Chicago school authorities are working on new strategies to address the city's crushing pattern of elementary grade absenteeism and truancy.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is hoping to build on initiatives that have shown success in Baltimore, New York City and elsewhere, top aide Aarti Dhupelia said at the first meeting of the state's new elementary truancy task force Friday.

"This is a priority for us," Dhupelia told the three dozen educators and officials at the meeting. "We see this as an 'it takes a village' issue. We can't tackle this alone."

The General Assembly formed the task force after a Tribune investigation reported that nearly 32,000 of the city's K-8 grade students — or roughly 1 in 8 — miss a month or more of class per year, while thousands of youngsters vanish from the attendance rolls altogether.

The stories exposed weaknesses in state law, breakdowns in communication between government agencies and a steady erosion of anti-truancy resources and initiatives.

The 43-member task force brings together researchers, law enforcement officials, homeless advocates and others to propose legislative and policy solutions to the epidemic of missed classroom days that disproportionately affects impoverished African-American youngsters and children with disabilities. The task force is expected to deliver a report to the General Assembly by July 31.

While the task force is focused primarily on Chicago, its findings could affect districts across Illinois, state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia told the group. "This is transforming and game-changing," said Chapa LaVia, who sponsored the resolution creating the task force.

The 2012 Tribune series (chicagotribune.com/truancy) found 19 percent of Chicago kindergartners were officially listed as chronic truants — marked for failure at an age when no child can be said to have a choice in the matter. Among families racked by intense poverty and other problems, the Tribune found, elementary-grade girls who were kept home to care for younger siblings, boys who ran loose on the streets and families who couldn't get their kids to school as they bounced between temporary homes and shelters.

Chicago's official statistics masked the depth of the city's K-8 grade attendance problem in large part because officials are required to count a child as absent only if he or she is actively enrolled. But the Tribune identified gaps in enrollment as a major, uncounted contributor to elementary grade absence.

"We really mask the problem if we only look at unexcused absences — we're not counting days out of school," said Andrea Evans, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Education.

Task Force member Laurene Heybach, who directs the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said she is concerned about the enrollment delays encountered by many transient youths.

For those youths, Heybach said, "we don't get immediate enrollment. If you're not in school, where are you?"

Similar enrollment delays impact youths placed in state custody because of abuse or neglect, said Bobbie Gregg, a top official at the state Department of Children and Family Services.

Heidi Mueller, executive director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, added that she hoped the task force might address the barriers encountered by youth who return to schools from detention facilities.

Several task force members noted that districts across the state and country have implemented effective strategies for reconnecting chronically absent youth. "There is a lot of knowledge about what works. I hope we can build momentum for funding it," said Alternative Schools Network director Jack Wuest after the meeting.

Funding for the state board of education's Truants' Alternative and Optional Education Program, which dispenses grants to school districts, has plummeted to $11.5 million this year from $20.1 million five years ago.

While 35 of the 43 task force members attended the meeting, including several Chicago Public Schools officials, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart have yet to appoint a representative, according to Jeff Aranowski, a State Board of Education official who helped run Friday's meeting.

In coming months, the task force will hold public hearings to get input from school officials and families of chronically absent youths.

In addition to forming the task force, state lawmakers recently lowered the compulsory school attendance age from 7 to 6, putting Illinois in line with most states and giving officials leverage over parents who keep their youngsters out of class for weeks or longer. Similar measures in other states have boosted early-grade attendance among disadvantaged youths, education experts said. The Illinois law will go into effect in September.

Read the Tribune's series, "An empty desk epidemic," at chicagotribune.com/truancy

gmarx@tribune.com

dyjackson@tribune.com