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News Opinion Editorial

Roots of the achievement gap

Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso was merely stating the obvious when he said recently that Baltimore students' disappointing scores on this year's state standardized achievement tests in reading and math were due in large part to the fact that so many students are chronically absent or truant.

It's a truism that children who aren't in class can't be expected to excel, so Mr. Alonso had little choice but to admit that educators "still have not figured out how to communicate how important it is for kids to be in school." But this isn't a new problem — the system has struggled with unacceptably high rates of absenteeism, truancy and suspensions for years. The real question is, why haven't officials figured out what to do about it?

As The Sun's Erica Green reported this week, Baltimore's scores on the state achievement tests showed a double-digit gap between chronically absent students and those who attend school regularly — the third year in a row such as disparity has been evident. Ten percent of the city's elementary school students were chronically absent, as were 14 percent of middle school students. That translates into thousands of students who are somewhere other than where they should be on any given day — a huge waste of human potential that the city pays dearly for over the long run.

Mr. Alonso certainly has been aware of the problem ever since he took over the system in 2007, and to his credit, he has insisted that keeping kids in class has to be one of the system's top priorities if his reforms are to succeed. He early on directed school principals to reduce their reliance on out-of-school suspensions as a way of disciplining troublesome students. At the same time, he urged teachers and staff to work harder to reduce dropout rates by making home visits if necessary to urge chronically truant students to return to the classroom.

Those polices produced results. During the 2006-2007 school year, nearly 17,000 of the system's 85,000 students were suspended. By 2009-2010, that number had dropped nearly in half, to 9,712. Moreover, the number of habitually truant students went down, from a little over 8,000 in 2007 to 5,669 in 2011, and the graduation rate rose from 62.7 percent in 2007 to 70 percent in 2010.

But over the last two years, the system has been backsliding, and educators seem to be at a loss as to how to keep up the momentum for change. Suspensions and chronic absenteeism have both crept up again despite the enthusiasm generated by the success of earlier reforms, and the substantial number of kids who aren't in school is reflected in the leveling off of once rapidly rising test scores. The system needs to find a way to recharge itself quickly before more air leaks out of its balloon.

Educators could start by focusing on three areas where a new infusion of energy and talent might make a difference. They include further and sustained reductions in the number of out-of-school suspensions; a new and concerted push to coax truant student students back to the classroom; and more intensive efforts to tackle the problem of chronic absences. All of them will depend in one way or another on improving the overall physical and social environment schools offer their communities.

Mr. Alonso has already asked principals to devise alternatives to suspension for their most troublesome youngsters. Kicking kids out doesn't make the problem go away, because when suspended students come back they bring their old problems back with them, sometimes along with new ones. In-school suspension, after-school detention and weekend detention are just a few of the ways teachers can discipline students without depriving them of valuable instructional time.

Truants are, by definition, not in the classroom and therefore out of the reach of educators unless they are willing to track them down and persuade them to come back to school. This traditionally was the job of truant officers, whose function was more punitive than educational, but the city might get better results sending adults with whom a kid already has established a relationship of trust and respect.

Some kids are absent not because they are truants but because they have some chronic medical conditions such as asthma or migraines that keeps them out of class. Others don't attend regularly because they are victims of abuse or homelessness, or are taking care of family members. These are the toughest cases for educators because getting such children back into school involves providing medical, dental, counseling and other services before they can even begin to think about concentrating on school. That's hard to do if teachers and principals have no idea of what's going on in a kid's life, and it puts an additional burden on personnel to act in loco parentis. But it may be the only way to get some kids back to class.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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