Just a month ago I was talking with a principal of a city charter school and we were discussing the topic of attendance. I mentioned that I was frustrated at all the work I put into some of my lessons only to have half or a third of the students show up. He told me that his school had also had some difficulty with attendance in the past, but that they now have a good policy in place that has put a stop to any major issues. “If a kid misses twenty unexcused days we can expel them. That keeps most of our kids coming regularly.” Philadelphia Public schools do not have these same options. Expelling a student from a public school requires a serious offense, and truancy is not on that list. This further convinced me that comparing a public school in Philadelphia to a charter school in Philadelphia is unfair, as is comparing Philadelphia public schools to schools in other districts that adhere to even stricter attendance policies.
Before we want to make any real change in the School District of Philadelphia maybe we should look at the district’s stance on student attendance. If you read the message the district prints on its webpage or the policy that is placed in the student handbook, you might be fooled into believing the school district takes student attendance seriously. Looking at the actions and messages directed towards teachers and students reveals a drastically different reality.
What is the district’s real stance? As I have finished my fifth year of teaching in Philadelphia I would say their stance is one of indifference and cover up. Indifference- I have seen a countless number of students move from grade to grade regardless of how much they attend school (what lesson does that teach?). When I looked at district policies in Lower Merion and Upper Darby they have policies that link student success to attendance. In Lower Merion if a student has 4 class cuts in a school year they FAIL that course. Upper Darby requires that students who have missed 20 days lose 10% of their grade average; everyday after 20 is minus 1 more percentage point. Those two, and every other district I researched, said that students with unexcused absences cannot make up work. This is not the case in Philadelphia policies (take a look). Cover-up- I already mentioned kids being passed along. I have also actually received letters from high ups in the district essentially saying “do whatever it takes to pass kids in your subject”. Verbally we were told, “Pass all students” (though some had missed over 80 days of school). A countless number of teachers, including myself, have had their grades changed by administrators (this story was highlighted last year in the Inquirer). This year our staff was told at the end of the year that if we had a class in which more than 25% of our class failed, even if those failures were due to attendance, the district considered that unacceptable and teachers would be held accountable. The message that is being sent to teachers is very different that the message that officially appears in district policy.
An unbelievable example: The following is the exact yearly attendance of one of my classes for the 2009-2010 school year. I have changed the names of students for obvious legal reasons. I also want it to be known that I really do love most of these students and I realize that they have some crazy life circumstances. Most of these students have expressed that my class was one of their best classes this year. This being the case, I am frightened to see their attendance in classes they didn’t like. I cannot ignore the fact that the indifference the district shows towards their lack of attendance is causing problems of epidemic proportions. Could I really feel like an educator and pass 75% of these students? Well, I managed to get 68% of these students to pass and that is only because I allow students to make up almost all of their work regardless of why they were absent. Unfortunately the actual practices of the school district enable students rather than prepare them. I would have been severely reprimanded had I followed the policies of Upper Darby or Lower Merion, and consequentially if I had followed their policies only 27% of my class would have passed. How can we expect real change, real improvement, or competitive schools unless the issue of attendance is addressed seriously. Would it be a mighty mountain to climb? Absolutely! Yet I think it can be accomplished and I know it needs to be if we are to see real improvement as a school district and a city.
1 of my 5 classes (this class had the worst attendance of all 5 classes, but these are the real statistics, no fabrication)
Formating this is funky but the information breaks down as follows
Student , Cuts, Unexcused Abs., Total Absences, Final Mark
Brian 7 32 39 F
Wayne 20 19 39 D
Joe 12 50 62 D
Britney 4 80 84 F
Kim 13 19 32 C
Steph 3 31 34 B
Ciarra 5 42 47 D
Tracy 21 27 48 B
Tony 4 56 60 D
Maria 3 16 19 B
Liz 1 35 36 B
Natalie 5 56 61 C
Sam 96 71 167 F
Elliana 16 43 59 F
Kristen 8 14 24 D
Siani 0 5 5 C
Cynthia 25 36 61 F
Quran 11 50 61 F
Brandon 3 39 42 D
Lauren 37 38 75 F
Nellie 6 35 41 C
Carrie 4 32 36 B
*There were five additional students in this class for whom I do not have attendance records because they are special education and not on my role. Their attendance was equally bad, if not worse.
A realistic number and percent of students that would have passed in these three school districts
Philadelphia: 15 out of 22 or 68% of students passed
Lower Merion and Upper Darby: 6 out of 22 or 27% of students passed
(To determine this I used their attendance policies and then looked at whether or not their grades would have dropped below failing)
No real solutions can occur until we are able to take educating students seriously. Passing students along who would be failed in other districts or fired from their jobs does not help our students in any way. Punishing teachers for trying to hold their students to reasonable standards is wrong and only worsens the problem. Of course, tackling the causes of truancy is a huge and monumental task but let’s not sweep this under the rug just because it is a challenge. Our district and communities need to make real commitments to address the problem of truancy.