Two months after nearly one-third of the city's principals were penalized over poor student attendance, the school system has made marked progress, education officials said at a hearing Thursday called by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
In March, interim CEO Tisha Edwards placed 61 principals on "performance improvement plans" or PIPs — usually a precursor of dismissal that can affect end-of-year evaluations and pay raises.
They were told to reduce the number of students considered "at risk" of missing more than 20 days of school. The plan drew criticism from the principals union and Clarke, who heads the City Council's education committee, for holding principals solely responsible for a community-wide problem.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals union, told the committee that in the past few weeks, the union and school officials have worked together, and the number of principals on PIPs has been reduced to 17.
But he emphasized: "I will not support anyone chastising or punishing our principals for students not coming to school. This is a community effort. We cannot focus on one group."
Maria Navarro, chief academic officer for the school system, told the committee that the plan has already shown results. Most notably, schools are taking better, more consistent and accurate attendance.
In addition, education officials vowed during the hearing to launch a citywide attendance campaign.
Clarke and advocates said they will communicate with parents through means such as citywide and community back-to-school gatherings, to emphasize the importance of coming to school. Clarke also said advertisements for attendance needed to be as prominent as those for street cleanups.
Clarke said the city would back efforts that send the message "You love Baltimore. Get those kids to school."
Organizations that work in schools, such as the Family League of Baltimore and the University of Maryland School of Social Work, testified on ways that schools throughout the city are attempting to combat the problem of chronic absenteeism.
Among the strategies cited were picking up kids and walking them to school, principal wake-up calls and home visits.
The Family League also discussed its work in "community schools," which seek to break down barriers to attendance by supplying families and schools with resources.
But Cathleen Miles, principal of Abbottston Elementary School — who said she was one of the 61 principals placed on a PIP — said not all schools are fortunate enough to have the support of organizations like the Family League.
On the day she was notified about her PIP, she also found out she lost money in her budget and her school social worker's schedule would be reduced from two days a week to one. In many schools, social workers are responsible for reaching out to chronically absent students.
Miles — who was removed from her PIP on Thursday — said that she has to rely on parent volunteers or work almost seven days a week to do all that's required to try to make sure every child is in their seat every school day.
"I'm willing to do that, but we have to look at this from a bigger perspective," Miles said. "Our families are not convinced that education is the answer, or school is a place [their children] need to be."