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News Opinion Editorial

AWOL from class [Editorial]

Baltimore City principals are criticizing interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards' decision to hold them accountable for high rates of chronic absenteeism among their students. The principals say it's the parents' fault if children don't come to class and that schools can't be expected to fix all the problems in students' homes that keep them from showing up. But while it's certainly true that some parents are lax about getting their kids to school and need to shape up, that doesn't mean principals are justified in simply throwing up their hands and insisting there's nothing more they can do. The manner and timing of Ms. Edwards' action left much to be desired — she put a third of city principals on performance improvement plans without much warning and with only three months left in the school year — but the policy is spot-on.

We know that principals can affect school attendance because experience has shown that some are consistently better at it than others. The means of achieving that goal include attendance contests that reward students; accurate, up-to-date record-keeping so administrators can spot potential attendance problems before they become chronic; calling parents in to talk about the importance of good attendance; and scheduling home visits to personally inspect a situation that is keeping a student from coming to class.

No one expects principals to work miracles, and there clearly are some circumstances under which even the most dedicated principals may find themselves powerless. But automatically blaming every unexcused absence on a failure in the home, without delving more deeply into the possible causes of the absences and potential remedies, is an abdication of the schools' own responsibility to the children. It's not the child's fault if a parent is unable or unwilling to provide the stability and support the child needs in order to attend school regularly, and principals should expect to be evaluated on their ability find creative ways to address such problems.

Principals need to ask themselves how they define their school's mission: Is success to be defined only in terms of the inputs to the system — the facilities, teachers, curriculum and books — or is it measured in terms of the outputs, such as test scores, attendance rates and the percentage of students who graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college or the work world? In a city in which more than four out of five children come from families whose incomes are so low that they qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, principals who don't take into account the problems that make it difficult for some children to consistently attend school every day are being derelict in their duties as educators.

No matter how spiffy school buildings are or how well-trained and committed the instructional staff, it won't mean much if the children don't show up to learn. As The Sun's Erica Green reported this week, children who are chronically absent — defined as missing more than 20 days of school during the academic year — lag substantially behind their peers who attend classes regularly. Last year there was a 23 percentage point performance gap on the Maryland School Assessments in math between students who were chronically absent and those who weren't.

Ms. Edwards has placed 61 principals on performance improvement plans because of the high number of students in their schools who she believes are at-risk for being chronically absent — that is, students who have not yet missed 20 days of class but whose absences so far suggest that they will exceed that number before the school year ends. The head of the administrators union, Jimmy Gittings, charges that principals are being punished for something that hasn't happened yet, and that in any case it's unfair to hold them accountable for something they have no control over. But while principals may not be able to fix every problem they find, it's their responsibility to do what they can, including working with school police, truant officers and social service agencies to get chronically absent kids back in school.

The timing of Ms. Edwards' decision is unfortunate because she only has a few more months on the job before the new schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, takes over. Going forward, however, we hope he adopts a similar policy for boosting attendance. It's not enough for schools to just open their doors in the morning and educate whichever students happen to show up. If they are truly to fulfill their mission, principals have got to reach to all their children and then do whatever it takes to help them show up every day for school.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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