City principals face discipline for student absenteeism

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.

For example, on the Maryland School Assessments for math last year, there was a 23 percentage point performance gap between city students who were chronically absent and those who weren't, according to data compiled by the school system.

Chronically absent students also were found to be less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to drop out, school officials have said.

To determine whether a student is "at-risk" of missing more than 20 days of school, the district studied attendance patterns.

Gittings questioned the use of that data for PIPs, saying it could dramatically inflate what absentee rates end up being at the end of the year. Principals are usually evaluated on their actual year-end chronic absentee rates, rather than how many students could hypothetically miss 20 or more days. In other words, he said, principals feel they are begin punished for something that hasn't happened.

Gittings said he met with Edwards and suggested other ways to address the problem.

He said he negotiated with Edwards to reduce the number of principals placed on PIPs from 91 to 61, but he still plans to go before the city school board to protest the action.

He said a PIP "only destroys the morale of our administrators" and can be used to issue unsatisfactory evaluations and prevent principals from receiving pay increases at the end of the year.

Edwards denied any effort to avoid approving pay raises and said PIPs are meant to formalize a commitment by a principal and supervisor to fix specified issues. She said they also establish responsibility of the principals' supervisors to support and monitor their progress.

For principals to come off the PIPs at the end of the year, they must meet two of three requirements: increase the rate of submitting attendance records, create a plan to reduce the percentage of students considered at-risk for chronic absenteeism and reduce the at-risk rate by 1 percentage point.

Gittings said he worries administrators will be forced to place other staff, including teachers, social workers and staff responsible for attendance, on PIPs.

"Their jobs are hard enough providing quality education for our students," he said. "Now management wants them to take on responsibility of being mother and father."

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