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Whitewashed CPS attendance records short-change kids

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Kids who show up in school, do better in school. This not only makes common sense, it’s corroborated by research.

So any school that cooks the books to make it appear that a student who skipped a class really didn’t cut that class is whitewashing a problem — and shortchanging that kid.

Yet, disturbingly, that’s what was happening at four Chicago public high schools over various years, stretching from 2012 to 2016, according to a new report by the system’s official watchdog.

Students aren’t allowed to cheat; school employees shouldn’t be allowed to do so either. Swift and fair action should be taken against them when they do. And that includes firing the worst offenders.

An investigation by Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Nicholas Schuler indicates that four CPS high schools falsely boosted annual attendance rates by about 10 to 20 percentage points, according to an exclusive report in the Thursday Chicago Sun-Times.

All four did so by using a “presumed attendance” counting technique in which single or often multiple class cuts by a student were overridden and the student was “presumed” to have a full day of attendance if there was any evidence of that student’s presence on campus at any time during the day.

Put bluntly, that’s cooking the books.


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Not only is the practice a disservice to kids who need to learn what they missed, but it threatens to keep parents in the dark about where their children really are during the school day. For safety reasons alone, parents have a right to know if their child is missing class.

Three of the schools also used another technique to inflate their attendance records, Schuler contends. Class cuts were wiped from the books if students attended absence-recovery programs that Schuler described as often “little more than detentions.” Unfortunately, Schuler said, many kids got credit for two or more class cuts by attending a single “recovery” period held days, or weeks, later. Sometimes, those “recoveries” weren’t even overseen by certified teachers, Schuler said.

Put bluntly, that’s called babysitting. In an ideal world, for kids to learn what they missed, they need to learn it from someone who knows the coursework and before the next class, not days or weeks later.

Schuler’s report recommends penalties against 20 staffers involved in the alleged fraud, including the dismissal of two principals. Although Schuler gave CPS officials his report on June 30, another school year has since started and CPS has yet to take any disciplinary action, according to reporter Kate Grossman. That, too, is disturbing.

CPS schools these days are under great pressure to keep up their attendance rates. Schools, and principals, are rated in part on them. But for such an accountability system to work, it must have credibility and move decisively.

Amazingly, one school – allegedly Orr High School — was overriding student cuts at such a frenetic pace that it expanded its clerk staff from one to five to handle the work load. Each day, attendance clerks allegedly changed hundreds of entries about absences, a practice they called “cleaning attendance.”

Chicago Teachers Union citywide field representative John Kugler says teachers are “furious” and “distraught” about the prospect of their attendance records being whitewashed. In many cases, Kugler said, such schools could use more counselors – not more clerks – to address the problems that may be keeping kids out of class in the first place. That makes sense to us.

The time and money put into “cleaning attendance” would be much better spent figuring out how to get kids to come to class in the first place, and how to structure a meaningful recovery program when they don’t.

Imagine if the time clerks spent whitewashing the books was spent instead calling chronically late kids to make sure they were on their way to school, and calling their parents promptly on the day of any missed class?

Many of the cut classes were the first ones of the day, Schuler said. What if the four schools in question — allegedly Orr, Manley, Marshall and Team Englewood – all started classes later than this year’s opening bell of 8 a.m. or earlier. Studies show early hours don’t agree with many teens.

CPS rules require schools to count a student who missed a class as absent for that class. But they also allow schools to give that student attendance credit for going to a recovery program.

A meaningful recovery system could be created, but it shouldn’t be allowed so repeatedly by the same student that it incentivizes kids to cut classes they don’t like in favor of make-up classes at a more comfortable hour. After a certain number of cuts, schools may want to require Saturday classes or some other remedy. Computerized learning programs may hold promise here.

These and other ideas need to be explored by any CPS school facing serious class-cutting problems.

Under today’s computerized attendance and grading system, CPS has the ability to audit for unusual patterns in attendance changes. CPS, or the IG, should be doing so at least annually. Massive class cuts need to not only be investigated swiftly, but addressed promptly – and not whitewashed.

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