Chicago school officials two years ago knew the depth of the city's crisis in K-8 grade truancy and absenteeism, and even developed a detailed plan to tackle the problem in the most affected communities.
But only fragments of that plan were ever attempted, and within a year, it was quietly shelved.
The aborted 2010 initiative, outlined in a series of confidential reports obtained by the Tribune, is emblematic of Chicago's historic lack of will and follow-through on the fundamental issue at the heart of every school system: ensuring that youngsters are at their seats in the classroom.
"This project was a victim of incessant reorganizing and not being a priority. It never went anywhere," said former CPS Office of Student Support and Engagement leader Paige Ponder, whose division helped oversee the effort before she left the district in frustration. Truancy and absenteeism are "such an enormous, complex issue. But the money, the will, the leadership just wasn't there to tackle it in a sustained way."
Only now, in response to a recent Tribune investigation, are CPS officials vowing to tackle a problem that cripples student achievement and costs the district millions in funding keyed to attendance.
The architect of the 2010 plan was then-Chief Administrative Officer Robert Runcie, who left Chicago the next year to become superintendent of the
, Fla., school system. It was completed in July 2010, but the city schools' CEO at the time,
, stepped down four months later, not long after former Mayor
announced his own retirement.
Terry Mazany, who took over as interim schools CEO, told the Tribune that he was never informed of the 2010 attendance report. "I did not see that at all," Mazany said. Runcie and Huberman declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the district's current leader, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said Runcie's project proposal "was recently shared with the CEO and will be part of her review process" as Byrd-Bennett moves to address truancy and absenteeism in the coming weeks and months.
Record of failure
The extensive and detailed attendance data marshaled by Runcie in 2010 mirror and confirm the Tribune's recent findings on the epidemic of empty desks in Chicago elementary schools. Counting truancy, excused absences and enrollment gaps, the newspaper found, nearly 32,000 K-8 students — or about 1 in 8 — missed a month or more of the 2010-11 school year.
Like the Tribune, Runcie calculated the financial cost to the district of the chronic absenteeism, concluding that Chicago would garner $11.5 million in additional state funds if citywide attendance grew by just 1 percent. That is higher than the $9 million figure reckoned by the Tribune.
The district loses $111 each day a student is absent, Runcie's analysis found.
Runcie's report and other confidential program documents also linked chronic absenteeism to academic failure in the early grades and, ultimately, a higher risk of dropping out in high school.
Students in grades 3-8 who missed at least 10 percent of their school days were 10 to 30 percent more likely than their peers to fail at least one of the four benchmark exams in math and reading, Runcie's analysis found.
In high school, chronic truants had four times as many misconduct reports and were three times more likely to drop out, Runcie's report said.
The report also confirmed the Tribune's finding that the district had steadily choked off and abandoned numerous attendance-boosting programs amid turnover among top administrators. The district dismissed its cadre of about 150 truancy officers amid 1992 budget cuts.
Before Runcie wrote his initial proposal in 2010, the district's paltry efforts to contact chronically absent youth had been overseen by unevenly trained CPS administrators and largely performed by contractors who had "limited success" and didn't start work until months into the school year, his report said. There was "no districtwide accountability" for attendance.
The district also failed to properly account for how it spent state anti-truancy grants totaling $5 million per year, Runcie's report said.
Like the Tribune, Runcie identified ways that outside government agencies could better coordinate with CPS. His report suggested the state Department of Children and Family Services did not have a clear procedure for working with the schools on the most serious truancy cases, for example.
A plan for success
The heart of Runcie's report is a detailed plan to address the attendance crisis, starting with a pilot program in four high-poverty areas with pervasive absenteeism — Englewood, Woodlawn, Austin and Humboldt Park/Hermosa.
Runcie proposed assigning an outreach worker to each of 24 elementary and two high schools in those four communities, as well as redeploying nine central office staffers and hiring a total of three new school employees. The attendance of about 1,500 targeted students would be monitored daily, and community groups would be contracted to connect those youngsters and their families with services as needed.
The report estimated the pilot project's cost at $2.9 million a year, with funds to be drawn from the existing $5 million annual state anti-truancy grant. Local churches and parent volunteers would be recruited to help, and Runcie envisioned Chicago's mayor championing the cause by establishing a citywide interagency "impact panel" to enlist other city departments to support CPS.
Runcie's report concluded with an aggressive timetable that said the pilot program could be up and running in two months, by the beginning of the 2010-11 school year. If the effort was effective, Runcie's report suggests, it might be scaled up with the aim of lowering the citywide truancy and absenteeism rate by 1 percent.
Instead, interviews show, the pilot program was implemented in only a dozen schools in two of the four districts, targeting about 430 students in grades 6-8. There were no new administrators, no parent volunteers or community organizations, no additional collaboration with outside agencies or city departments, and no funds from the state anti-truancy grant.
Instead of trained outreach workers, CPS reassigned 18 part-time staffers who had formerly done some outreach but also provided crowd control and security at district events, among other duties. The district concluded that union contracts limited the workers from doing much more than visiting the families of truant students and turning over the information they gleaned to school principals, according to interviews and internal CPS emails examined by the Tribune.
Principals at the schools were frustrated because they had been promised that social service agencies would help deal with the families' sometimes complex problems, records and interviews show. Many of the targeted families received no intervention or support because "funding needed for implementation did not materialize," according to one internal CPS analysis.
Still, even the simple act of contacting families brought some promising if incremental results, according to CPS records and interviews. For the 430 youth targeted by the program, the number of excused and unexcused absences dropped significantly from the year before, according to two internal CPS reports.
"It is not rocket science — it's very person-to-person. You have to have people making lots of phone calls, doing home visits, trying to understand what's going on with the families, and solving as many problems as you can," Ponder said. "It worked pretty well when people did what they were supposed to. When someone was engaged at the school and the youth outreach worker was good, then good things happened. But when any of those links were missing, there was no improvement."
Soon after his project was launched, Runcie was moved to a new post as part of a CPS central administration shake-up, and he left for Florida in 2011.
Former CPS Attendance and Truancy Director Kimberlyn McNutt, who helped Runcie develop the 2010 initiative and struggled in vain to make it work, said that was "the most disheartening experience of my professional career, and the experience still saddens me to this day. Ultimately, when all is said and done, it is our kids who suffer the loss."