Sept. 25, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 1

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    Invisible truants

    Idling away hours as in-school absentees

    By Catherine Behan
    News Office

    When Malik, who attends Chicago's public

    schools, was in eighth grade, he had big goals

    for high school: to be on the basketball team and to be valedictorian. Now he spends most of his school hours in the lunchroom, playing spades. The only class he's passing, or attending regularly, is geometry, where the teacher "wanted us in class and helps you really want to learn."

    A new University study shows that high school truancy efforts often miss students like Malik, who go to school but don't regularly attend classes. The study, by Melissa Roderick, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, argues that school efforts to improve attendance need to look more broadly at how truancy occurs, and the many ways students can be absent.

    The study, "Habits Hard to Break: A New Look at Truancy in Chicago's High Schools," analyzes student records for Chicago Public Schools' ninth-grade class of 1995-96. Roderick's results show that Chicago Public Schools have two truancy problems -- students who don't attend school and students who come to school more or less regularly but then cut classes. The two problems suggest different kinds of solutions, she said.

    Roderick found that about 40 percent of students who miss a month or more of classes each semester, considered "extreme truants," are attending school, but cutting classes. The trend starts early -- by the spring of 1996, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of CPS ninth graders missed two or more weeks of class in at least one major subject. Even top students cut classes often, she said. More than 40 percent of the highest-achieving ninth graders missed two or more weeks of classes in at least one major subject in the second semester of 1996.

    "Cutting is easy in large high schools without adult monitoring, strong school cultures or orderly school environments," Roderick said. "Not going to school and cutting classes are both vicious cycles."

    The example of Malik illustrates that Chicago Public Schools need to take a different look at the problem of truancy in Chicago, Roderick said. Most schools focus on students who don't come to school at all for long periods of time.

    "This approach misses students who come to school and then skip classes or those who mix inconsistent attendance with course skipping -- a group that makes up a high proportion of truant students. And yet, these are the students who are easiest to help through prevention."

    The study also suggests that schools move away from thinking of truancy as a delinquency problem solved by punishment. Too often, these punishments don't deal with the underlying problem and actually make the situation worse. Roderick argues that a better approach maximizes learning and minimizes time outside of the classroom -- such as requiring students to make up homework after school for a missed class rather than in-school or out-of-school suspensions.

    "A student may not go to class initially because she doesn't like the teacher, is having academic difficulty, her friends pressure her to stay at lunch, or she just didn't do the homework for the day. And without an immediate reaction from school staff or other adults, cutting becomes an option rather than facing that teacher or making up homework," Roderick said.

    Roderick's research team visited many high schools around the city, some of which are profiled in the report, that are making progress reducing truancy. Three major points of action stand out as effective in reducing truancy:

    _ Reducing truancy requires school-wide improvement and involvement. Specifically, schools must provide basic infrastructures that support efforts to improve attendance, such as smaller, more personalized environments where teachers can get to know students and define norms; identify truants and class cutters early, before recovery is difficult; and work with parents to monitor and intervene on behalf of students.

    _ Truancy is an academic problem and the solutions must be linked to the classroom and learning. "The more students are invested in school, the greater the leverage for adults in enforcing good behavior and good decision-making," she said. She recommends having clear plans for reintegration and academic recovery, including uniform responses to class cutting and tardiness.

    _ Schools must pay special attention to the needs of students who have high full-day absences. "Students who miss a month or more of school often have multiple problems and may need extra support, outreach and attention," she said. Roderick advocates improving communication between elementary and high-school teachers and finding ways to fill critical mental health and social service gaps for students at risk of failure.

    As school reform progresses in Chicago Public Schools, there is great opportunity to improve each high schools' learning environment and increase schools' ability to address attendance problems, Roderick said.

    "High schools need to take a more proactive stance in identifying student problems and promoting needed service integration in school communities," she said. "Such developments are the essential spirit of reform -- community members working together to advance opportunities for all of our children."

    The study, published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, is part of an ongoing study of Chicago public high schools. The research is supported in part by the Steans Family Foundation, the Mcdougal Family Foundation, the Center for Research of the Education of Students Placed at Risk, the Spencer Foundation and Chicago Public Schools.