Nearly one-third of Baltimore principals are facing disciplinary action over high student absenteeism, drawing the ire of a union leader who has fired back that parents are the problem, not schools.
Baltimore schools interim CEO Tisha Edwards said 61 principals will be placed on performance improvement plans because their schools have large percentages of students who are at-risk for being chronically absent — missing more than 20 days in an academic year — by the end of the school year.
The plans, known as PIPs, are allowed under the union contract and historically have been used as punitive measures that can be precursors to dismissal.
"This is not about firing principals," Edwards said. "This is about the fact that we have an obligation to work with families to get children to school, and that's not happening. Principals have a leadership role that not all of them are owning."
But Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, said use of the plans is an extreme measure that holds principals responsible for a problem that ultimately lies with parents.
"We're emphatically against placing our principals on performance plans for something they have no control over," Gittings said. "The individuals who need to be placed on PIPs are the parents of the students who have the constant problem of getting their children to school."
This school year is on track to be the fourth in a row during which about a quarter of the system's students will miss more than 10 percent of school days, Edwards said. Last year, 23 percent of all city school students were chronically absent.
Edwards said principals can do more to identify students who are at-risk of joining those statistics.
She highlighted one example in which school officials failed to follow up with the parents of a number of students who had missed several days of school. Had officials done so, they would have known that the students suffered from chronic illnesses and could have sent classwork home or offered services such as tutoring.
Edwards, who will run the school system until June 30, when new CEO Gregory Thornton takes over, acknowledged in some cases there's not much a principal can do to ensure students attend class. But, she said, efforts have to be made. She added that principals can be removed from PIPs if they meet certain requirements.
"I know that there are problems beyond the principals' control," Edwards said. "You can't solve all of the problems, but you also can't solve the ones you don't know about."
In addition to ordering the 61 PIPs, Edwards plans to send 26 of the district's 31 charter schools "letters of concern" for not consistently submitting attendance records or for having a high percentage of students considered "at-risk" of chronic absenteeism.
If the issues outlined in the letters are not addressed, that will be factored into whether a charter school's contract is renewed.
In a statement, the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools pointed out that its schools have been recognized by the city school board for high attendance and for their work to address chronic absenteeism.
"We know that this work requires a level of long-term vision, planning, and coordination that is both strategic and supportive," Will McKenna, co-chair of the coalition, said. "Putting principals on PIPs and sending out letters of concern at this time of year are short-sighted, punitive steps that will do more harm than good and will do nothing substantive to address the issue at hand."
Edwards said that in many cases, charter schools have different methods of recording attendance and do not report absentee information to school headquarters' central attendance system as required.
Traditional schools also have trouble with record keeping, officials said, and some schools routinely don't mark any students absent.
The district's computerized attendance system automatically defaults to mark students present. If it is not manually changed, the attendance records are not accurate.
The performance plans also call for each school to submit its daily attendance at least 90 percent of the time.
When student achievement took a downturn three years ago, the district began emphasizing the need to improve attendance.