City councilwoman urges different approach to combating student absenteeism

A Baltimore city councilwoman is calling on school system leaders to reconsider using a disciplinary tool against more than one-third of principals in order to improve student attendance, saying it takes an entire community to get students to school.

Mary Pat Clarke, head of the council's education committee, introduced a resolution Monday that requests more information about the school system's attendance issues and the rationale behind a recent plan that has 61 principals facing pressure to improve attendance in the last few months of the school year.

Interim CEO Tisha Edwards unveiled a plan to place 61 principals on performance improvement plans because their schools had high numbers of students considered "at-risk" for missing 20 or more days of school.

The performance plans -- usually a precursor for dismissal that can affect end-of-year evaluations and pay raises -- were issued last week. The measure drew the ire of the principal's union, who said that the district was prematurely punishing principals for a problem that ultimately lies with parents.

Clarke said that she believes chronic absenteeism is a citywide problem, and that the district should have sought out an opportunity to educate the community rather than penalize principals.

“I thought this was a good opportunity to say, ‘attendance is everybody’s responsibly and it’s important to the future,' because we have to have our children in school if they’re going to learn," Clarke said in an interview.

"I’m rather disappointed that at the very end of the school year, a lot of principals have been put under sanctions for a failure to achieve certain attendance baselines. It's a strange time of year to be requiring it in a strange way."

The resolution calls on the school board -- who did not vote to approve Edwards' plan --  to reconsider applying PIPs on a case-by-case basis. It also calls on the board to launch a large-scale, multimedia outreach campaign on attendance like those used for smoke detectors and mechanical sweepers.

City school system officials declined to comment on the resolution Monday. City school board President Shanaysha Sauls did not respond to requests for comment.

Clarke said she knew hardworking principals who have been placed on the PIPs even though they follow all of the school system's rules and employed several "best practices" to improve attendance, some of which are not always successful.

She also took issue with the the fact that the principals facing sanctions will only be judged on attendance in the fourth quarter -- the quarter that has historically had the lowest attendance rates of the year -- rather than the entire school year.

The resolution stated that: "Diligent principals deserve better than to be singled-out at the end of a difficult year of snow days, late days, and a new curriculum as the “principal” causes of an attendance failure for which the entire community must take a share of responsibility.

At a council lunch Monday afternoon, Clarke told councilmembers that parents needed to be more educated, and the entire city had a stake in students coming to school. She said she also wondered if the district could bring back more resources like truancy officers who used to police truant students.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pointed to her citywide attendance competition that has rewarded schools that improve attendance. “Do the right thing to do the right thing," Rawlings-Blake said. "Sometimes pizza helps.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Brandi Bottalico contributed to this article.

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