A top state lawmaker and the head of the Chicago Public schools on Monday vowed to support a high-level task force aimed at combating the crisis in K-8 grade absenteeism and truancy exposed by a recent Tribune series.
Speaking at a drop-out prevention forum, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie and district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pledged to tackle a daunting problem that they acknowledged has not been addressed in the past, essentially foreclosing the futures of tens of thousands of Chicago students.
“While the district has not fully owned this problem in the past, we will own it now,” Byrd-Bennett told the gathering of educators, politicians and community leaders at the Union League Club of Chicago. “We must work to shut down the drop-out pipeline.”
Byrd-Bennett said she would expand a small “Check & Connect” pilot program that pairs trained mentors with roughly 450 truant elementary students and has shown signs of promise in its second year.
But these “incremental and tiny steps ... are not enough for the magnitude of our problem,” Byrd-Bennett added. “We need to find new ways to work together and engage other government agencies.”
The Tribune series, published last month, found that nearly 32,000 K-8 students -- or roughly one in 8 -- missed four weeks or more of class during the 2010-11 school year as the cash-strapped district did little to stem the devastating problem.
The elementary grade absences were especially severe for African-American children and those with learning and emotional disabilities. For children born into poverty, the flood of missed days threatens to swallow any hope for a better life, while the empty seats undermine efforts to boost achievement and cost the district millions in attendance-based funding, the Tribune found.
“I was shocked when I read the series in the Chicago Tribune ... showing the extent of the truancy problem,” said Currie, D-Chicago.
In response to the Tribune series, state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, has introduced a House resolution to create a task force on K-8 grade school absenteeism that will include representatives from the governor's office, the Chicago's mayor office, city police and other agencies and community groups.
The resolution is currently awaiting action in the house rules committee and likely will be voted on in January. Currie said Monday: “That resolution I confidently predict will pass.”