The Road to Two Providences
We need new leadership, fresh ideas and innovative strategies to stanch the growing epidemic of absenteeism in the Providence public schools. We need to act now to keep hundreds, if not thousands, of early elementary school students from falling behind in reading and math. We need to invest now to rescue hundreds, if not thousands, of high school students from failing to make it to graduation.
Why School Attendance Is Important
The evidence on the importance of school attendance and the disastrous consequences of chronic absenteeism is solid and far-reaching. Rates of absenteeism in kindergarten predict poor math and reading skills by the fifth grade. High school students with chronic absenteeism are far more likely to drop out. Poor attendance in high school is a better predictor of dropping out than low test scores. In fact, not showing up to class and not graduating are part of a continuum. The student attends high school less and less until the school system eventually reclassifies him as having left altogether.
Chronic absenteeism may have long-term consequences. High school is a critical place where a student learns how to get along with peers and teachers. Chronic absenteeism appears to reduce a student’s ability to engage others socially. A student who cannot regularly show up at high school is likely to have more trouble showing up at work. That alone may have serious adverse effects on the student’s future labor market success.
The Record to Date
In Ring the bell: School’s in session, I reviewed the track record based on school attendance data available up to the 2015-16 school year. Now that the Providence Public Schools have issued an update covering the 2016-17 school year, the evidence of a looming disaster is even more compelling.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of scheduled days in a school year. During the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, the chronic absenteeism rate of Providence public high school students hovered at an astounding 55 percent. The advent of Mayor Angel Taveras’ administration, however, saw a significant decline in chronic absenteeism, approaching 45% by the 2013-14 school year.
Propelled by a November 2011 workshop run by Hedy Chang, national director of Attendance Works, the Providence Public Schools began to set up school-based attendance teams. In the fall of 2012, several high schools began partnering with Get Schooled, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on teen peer influence and the media to encourage attendance. By March 2014, nine high schools were participating. Mount Pleasant High School’s chronic absenteeism rate plummeted from 69.5% in the 2010-11 school year to 42.4% in the 2013-14 school year.
With the arrival of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s team in January 2015, the favorable downward trend in high school absenteeism has completely disappeared. By the 2016-17 school year, as noted in the graphic above, chronic absenteeism in all Providence high schools was back to 54.6 percent. The rate at Mount Pleasant has crept back up to 58.6 percent
Conflicts between top management and Mayor Elorza – with the resulting discontinuities in leadership – are likely to have been important factors. In June 2015, according to a report in the Providence Journal, Superintendent Susan Lusi abruptly resigned, “blaming a system of governance that made it difficult for her to get things done in a timely manner.” During Lusi’s 4-year tenure, the Providence Journal separately reported, graduation rates had risen from 65 to 71 percent and dropout rates had declined from 21 to 14 percent. In January 2016, Keith Oliveira, the widely respected principal of one of the City’s most innovative charter high schools, likewise abruptly resigned as President of the Providence School Board, claiming that Mayor Elorza had “interfered with the school’s budget process.”
After Superintendent Lusi left, the current Superintendant Christopher Maher was kept in limbo for nine months before he was finally given the go-ahead in April 2016 to assume Lusi’s post. Maher pledged to work with the Providence Children Youth Cabinet to attack the absenteeism problem. While there were some favorable signs of a possible improvement in attendance in the elementary grades, the gains have vanished entirely. According to the most recent report, chronic absenteeism in Providence elementary schools jumped from 23.4% in the 2015-16 school year to 28.9% in the 2016-17 school year. Upon the release of the report, Maher told WPRI’s Dan McGowan, “We need to identify students that are on pace to be chronically absent now … We need to target those students and their families.”
According to the latest report, the Providence school district has made the reduction of chronic absenteeism one of the key goals in its strategic plan. A “working group” has been convened to oversee strategies and monitor the progression toward a goal of reducing chronic absenteeism by 7 percentage points by 2021. Besides its work with the Providence Children Youth Cabinet, the district is also partnering with City Year Providence. Beyond these references, I can find no evidence of a detailed, actionable plan.
ESSA and the Bonds
In 2015, during the Obama administration, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA requires each state to identify low-performing schools and implement strategies to improve outcomes. In 2016, the Department of Education began issuing regulations implementing the new law. But with the arrival of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, ESSA’s future implementation remains in limbo.
Rhode Island’s own plan for implementing ESSA has somehow become a focal point for a growing chorus of commentators who would have us believe that things are on the mend. Maher himself retweeted a link to an article about how states are using their ESSA plans to crack down on chronic absenteeism. In a recent op-ed in the Providence Journal, Jessica Towhey stressed that Bellwether Education Partners gave Rhode Island’s ESSA plan a grade of 5 out of 5 in the category of “Supporting Schools.” In fact, that was the only category out of nineto receive five stars. In the key category of “Indicators,” Rhode Island’s ESSA plan got only three stars, apparently for bunching together too many redundant outcome measures and thus diluting the importance of such well-established indicators as the chronic absenteeism rate.
Then there’s another parallel chorus of well-wishers latching onto the recent recommendations of the Rhode Island School Building Task Force, which was convened in response to the scathing Rhode Island School Facilities Report. The Task Force, jointly chaired by state Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Secretary Ken Wagner, recommended putting a referendum to the voters on the 2018 ballot for authorization to issue $250 million in general obligation bonds, and another $250 million bonding authority on the 2022 ballot. In an editorial entitled “A plan to fix crumbling schools,” the Providence Journal heaped praise on Magaziner for making the $500 million bonding proposal. But the anticipated capital improvements, however well deserved, are years in the future.
Meanwhile, the 2017 R.I. School Facilities Report, prepared by Jacobs Engineering, found that Providence Schools alone had a total facility deficiency cost of $372.4 million. Among the high schools contributing to the total were Central High School ($4.1 million), Classical High School ($17.3 million), Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School ($3.6 million), Hope High School ($37.9 million), Mount Pleasant High School ($31.1 million), and Providence Career and Technical Academy ($4.8 million). There is little doubt that deteriorating school structures exacerbate student absenteeism. But don’t count on Magaziner-Wagner bonds to be tomorrow’s magic cure.
What We Need to Do Now
Superintendent Maher wants us to identify those students who are at risk for chronic absenteeism. We already have the tools to do so.
For one thing, poverty and its consequences are strong predictors of chronic absenteeism. A Better Picture of Poverty, a study of the 87,000 students in the New York City public school system with chronic absenteeism, found that homelessness, reports of child abuse and male unemployment were among the key factors. Beyond that, we need to find the children who are sick and have problems with access to healthcare. We need to find the children who face barriers to transportation.
When it comes to high school students, we need look for earlier signs of poor attendance in middle school. Even so, the ninth grade appears to be a key point of vulnerability. According to a report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, many ninth-graders with attendance problems do not necessarily show signs of going off track in middle school.
The Providence public schools need to move into the 21st century, creating privacy-protected databases on students that will greatly facilitate the identification of those at risk for poor attendance. These databases will permit the real-time monitoring of attendance and, with the advent of online grade books, the rapid identification of students who did not take exams or missed homework assignments. Our school department also needs to create an up-to-date database on students’ parents, particularly their contact information. That includes key data on parental preferences for communication, such as face-to-face conversation, text messages or email, as well as the parents’ preferred language.
There is already a vast repertoire of conventional tools to improve attendance, if only they were implemented on a grand scale. Even a cursory glance at the website of Attendance Works reveals a variety of strategies. That includes rewarding school attendance with certificates, homework passes, extra recess time, and recognition in front of peers in school assemblies. It includes morning and after-school care. It includes alternative safe means of transportation, launching walking school buses, and providing transit passes.
There is growing evidence that the simplest of communication tools can make a real difference. A recent report of a controlled experiment in the Philadelphia public schools showed that a single postcard to guardians reduced absences by 2.4 percent. Matthew Kraft, an assistant professor at Brown who previously taught middle school and high school in Oakland and Berkeley, recently published an article on the successful use of text messaging. But new automated tools of digital communication will work only if they are linked to databases that can identify missed classes and assignments in real time.
Our school leaders can play a key role in facilitating the parent-teacher communication that will be critical to reducing absenteeism among high-risk students. Our leaders need to make outreach to parents a key priority. They need to modify teachers’ work schedules to include blocks of non-instructional time each week to engage with parents.
The Road to Two Providences
Our mayor ran for office on a campaign of One Providence. His press releasesreiterate the slogan.
As I walk through the city, I see the signposts along the roads to Two Providences. Along one road, the cranes are erecting tax-subsidized, high-end hotels and condominiums, along with apartments for college and medical students and hospital residents who will come and go. I see a city where our leaders have performed somersaults to attract companies that will pack up and go, too, if they can’t find the trained labor force they need to operate.
Unless we engage now in a major undertaking to rescue our students, they will end up along the road to the other Providence.