As authorities move to address K-8 absenteeism and truancy in Chicago schools, where tens of thousands of elementary students miss a month or more of school each year, they may not have to look far for workable strategies.
Government agencies and community groups around the country — and even in Chicago neighborhoods — are implementing promising anti-truancy measures without significant additional spending or staff, Tribune interviews show.
On the Northwest Side, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association has reached into its own budget and initiated a program to hire and train a handful of parents who retrieve students absent from Ames Middle School and Kelvyn Park High School.
Michigan authorities, meanwhile, are reassigning state Department of Human Services social workers to troubled elementary schools in four large cities, where they provide services to the families of absent children.
And Baltimore is among the cities that allow impoverished families a grace period to assemble proof of residency and other nonmedical paperwork required for school enrollment. In Chicago, numerous children in grades K-8 miss weeks of school because of registration problems.
"Kids are out of school because the families can't spend $15 on a birth certificate — that is a ridiculous reason for a child not to be in school," said Laurene Heybach, director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
There isn't yet definitive data on the cost benefits and effectiveness of these and other strategies. Still, researchers say, school districts across Illinois and around the U.S. have shown promising results, often by simultaneously deploying an array of programs and interventions.
"This is a complex problem. It is unlikely that there is a magic bullet. You probably have to have a portfolio approach," said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which helps run a small CPS anti-truancy mentoring program called Check & Connect.
In Chicago, nearly 32,000 K-8 students — or roughly 1 in 8 — missed four weeks or more of class in the 2010-11 school year, a recently published Tribune analysis of internal city school attendance data found.
The absences, truancy and enrollment gaps cripple children's chances for a better future and cost the district millions in attendance-based funding, the Tribune found. The newspaper profiled youth who were kept home to care for younger siblings and children who lost months of class time as their families scrambled from home to home, fleeing foreclosure and debt.
The devastating pattern of missed classroom days was especially acute in impoverished African-American communities on the South and West sides, the Tribune found.
State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said it is critical that officials address the K-8 grade attendance crisis now because the city is planning to close dozens of under-enrolled elementary schools — many of them in the South and West side communities where elementary grade absenteeism is already disproportionately high.
The inevitable upheaval of children transferring from one school to another — and the longer distance they may have to travel to their new school — could "become a factor in increasing absenteeism," Collins said. Roughly two-thirds of K-8 students live within a half-mile of their school, but the rate of absenteeism rises the farther they have to travel, according to internal CPS data obtained by the Tribune.
In the wake of the Tribune's reporting, Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett assembled a team to find ways to reconnect youth to their schools, and state legislators moved to establish a task force to find solutions.
Experts and agencies from the Chicago police to the mayor to the state Department of Children and Family Services have said they are eager to join the panel, which is likely to begin work in January.
The task force, established by state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, "will look for best practices anywhere we can find them," she said.
One school district trying a variety of strategies is Baltimore, where authorities worked with foundations, researchers and other government agencies to cut in half the percentage of sixth- to eighth-graders who are absent for more than 20 days — from 34 percent in 2007 to 16 percent last year, according to that city's official data.
Schools in Baltimore team up with local churches and parent volunteers who hand out alarm clocks, clean uniforms, winter coats and even umbrellas. Child welfare caseworkers access attendance data for the youth they are monitoring, so they can intervene early if there are problems.
An attendance monitor is stationed in each elementary schoolhouse, and many follow up to make sure children are actually sick when their parents claim they are. One school even installed a washer and dryer and offers in-school dental services and free haircuts on Mondays.
And in the most extreme cases, when those supportive measures fail, "there is a stick," said Karen Webber-Ndour, executive director of student support and safety for the Baltimore schools.
"We do take the parents to court for neglect when students are chronically absent," Webber-Ndour said.
A total of 132 court cases were filed last year, said Baltimore school officials, who added that they are moving to de-emphasize court intervention.
Around Illinois and across the country, a common thread runs through many anti-truancy initiatives: Outreach workers visit the homes of absent elementary students, try to decipher why they're not attending and then help those families overcome the barriers.
The Chicago Public Schools dismissed its army of truancy officers in a 1992 cost-cutting measure, but the home visits don't necessarily have to be made by school employees, experts say. One example of that approach is taking place in Logan Square at Kelvyn Park High School.
Maricela Hernandez and Reyna Romero tapped on the window of a ramshackle wood frame home on a recent freezing morning. From inside the house, a gruff voice shouted, "What?" and then the father of a truant youth swung the door open, scowled and cursed.
Unruffled and polite, Hernandez and Romero displayed the plastic cards identifying them as "parent mentors" from the school.
Paid by the neighborhood association for five hours of work a day, they often labor into the afternoons at the massive red-brick schoolhouse, writing reports and preparing for the next day's visits.
The women always pair up for safety. Hernandez takes the wheel of her dark green Blazer as the women drive from home to home.
They have visited about 100 families in the last month and say that in most cases, they succeeded in at least getting the youth and his or her parents to the school to meet with the attendance clerk.
"Sometimes the house is dark or the address isn't right," Romero said. In those cases, the women comb the nearby streets, checking laundromats and homeless shelters, and call the truant's relatives.
"You can't just make a visit and say, that's it," Hernandez said. "You have to keep following these kids and find out what they need, and get the parent to come in to the school and win that trust."
They recently found a Kelvyn Park sophomore and his family huddled in a boarded-up bungalow without utilities. "From the outside, it looked completely empty," Hernandez said. The father, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, was out of work and raising the 16-year-old boy and a second son alone.
She said that they were able to help the family get food and clothing. "When they don't have food, clothes and jobs, school becomes secondary," Hernandez said.
State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said she is uncomfortable with parent outreach workers because families often need services that can be marshaled only by credentialed social workers or school professionals.
"I want truant officers back in the schools — not just to find the children, but to bring them services," Flowers said.
But Terry Spradlin, who helps run an educational policy institute at Indiana University, said there can be a benefit to the peer-to-peer relationship as long as the parent outreach workers have proper training.
For their part, Hernandez and Romero say they tap the neighborhood association to connect families to food pantries, donated clothes and free legal services. "The resources are there, but the parents don't know how to access the resources," Romero said.
Going to court
Chicago officials have shunned any anti-truancy measures that could be considered punitive — from imposing fines on parents to reducing their public aid and housing benefits. City officials say they fear such measures would hurt struggling families.
But Michigan schools refer parents of children with 10 or more unexcused absences to prosecutors for educational neglect, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.
Chief Wayne County juvenile prosecutor Robert Heimbuch said that before filing charges, his office participates in schoolhouse meetings with the families and school officials who can offer services and interventions. If the children return to school during the next three weeks, no charges are filed.
"More often than not, we end up finding out that there is an issue that is correctable," said Heimbuch, whose office last year resolved about 300 of the total 400 elementary grade cases at those initial meetings. "We want to prevent prosecution," he added.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made elementary truancy a top priority this year, saying the missed classroom days fueled patterns of crime and welfare dependency that cycled through generations.
Because the state's cash-strapped schools can't hire new truancy officers, Snyder is placing state Department of Human Services social workers in the elementary schools of Detroit and three other blighted urban centers. By next year, caseworkers will be stationed in nearly every elementary school in those four districts, department spokesman David Akerly said.
"They have a desk at the school, but their office is their iPhone," Akerly said. "This is reallocating resources, not us opening a pile of money or a line-item."
In addition, under a new Michigan rule, parents can lose welfare cash benefits if their child has 10 or more unexcused absences in a year. The benefits are reinstated if the child returns to school for three consecutive weeks. Districts in Alaska and Georgia have similar policies.
Critics of Michigan's rule say entire families could lose the cash assistance if only one child is truant — even though other siblings may have perfect attendance records. Akerly said no families have yet faced a public aid cash assistance cutoff.
"Bottom line," he said, "we're hoping it's prevention."