Editor’s note: Interim CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, Tisha Edwards, writes about the crisis of chronic absenteeism in this letter to City Schools colleagues and staff.
Our entire focus as a district right now is on strengthening teaching and learning for every student through rigorous curricula and assessments, improved instructional practices and high-quality school buildings.
I write to you today to broaden that focus to include another dimension of our work, one that is essential to everything else we do. Without it, our new curricula and assessments will have no impact, our efforts to build instructional capacity will be for naught and our investment in 21st-century buildings will be hollow. The “it” is making sure our students are in school. If they are not, the teaching and learning we are now set up to do simply cannot happen. Under the new Maryland College and Career-Ready Standards, rooted in the Common Core State Standards, what we teach and how we teach it is deliberate, sequenced and all interconnected. So when students miss school, they miss a key link in the chain of learning. The teaching and learning we are doing now is richer than ever. For that very reason, time in school is more precious than ever.
Student attendance has long been a challenge in City Schools, and in recent years it has received renewed attention. Yet attention alone is not achieving the attendance levels necessary for our students to succeed. In each of the last three years, approximately one-quarter of all City Schools students have been chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 20 days of school. That’s more than 10 percent of the school year. And so far this year, we are on track to continue that trend: The chronic absence rate for the most recent quarter at many schools is far too high.
Meanwhile, this time away from school is deeply affecting student achievement; we see it in the early grades and through high school, where the cumulative impact of chronic absence on graduation is particularly stark. Consider our latest high school results: Of those members of the Class of 2012 who were never chronically absent in high school, 92.2 percent graduated after five years. By contrast, of those students who were chronically absent at least once in high school, just 58.5 percent graduated after five years; and of those who were chronically absent in 9th grade, only 45.7 percent graduated after five years.
It is imperative that we as a district tackle the issue of chronic absence and turn these numbers around—starting now. And school communities cannot do it alone. The barriers to our students’ attendance are too great; we also know from other areas of our work that we can overcome even the toughest barriers when we come together on behalf of our students—as teachers, school leaders, school-based and district office staff; parents and families; community members and partner organizations. So please take this message as a call to action and, as members of the institution charged with educating Baltimore City’s children, please join me in leading an all-out effort to reduce chronic absence in City Schools. We have a little less than two quarters left to the school year. Let’s make them count for our kids.
We all have a role. In the coming days, our School Support Networks and executive directors of principal support will work with schools to review their chronic absence data and identify strategies and resources to bring students back to school and keep them there. That work, in turn, will inform how the district office can best support schools in their chronic absence reduction efforts. Meantime, and effective immediately, district office staff should review the systems and processes currently in place to monitor and improve student attendance, and think how they can, from where they sit in the organization, help drive down chronic absence rates. Finally, we all should think about how we can engage as strategically as possible the incredibly valuable and vital support of our families and partners in this work.
I look forward to partnering with you in the months ahead. And thank you for all that you do for our kids.