Guest Opinion | Scott Phelps: Who Has the Responsibility to Get Children to School: Parents, or Schools?

Published : Thursday, December 20, 2018 | 6:29 AM

Scott Phelps

I was reading an article published by EdSource.org (see here). I have long known of the accountability movement’s mission of assigning all accountability to schools for eliminating whatever differences there are in society, but this represents a new level. Now schools are going to be held accountable for getting students to school, traditionally the role of the student/parent/guardian/foster parent, or immediate family member, extended family member, neighbor, advocate, etc. Here are the opening sentences of the article:

“At least 40 percent of California school districts and charter schools have rates of chronic absence in grades K-8 that are high or very high based on new performance measures that will be unveiled next month as part of the state’s updated school accountability system, known as the California School Dashboard. The dashboard measurements, which actually underestimate the extent of the problem because they do not highlight high schools, show that fulfilling the basic responsibility of getting children to school remains difficult in many places.”

One can immediately see the use of language to place the onus on the schools and districts rather than where it belongs. Do districts and schools have rates of chronic absence? I think not. The students have these rates of absence. And do districts and schools have the responsibility of getting children to school? No, the extended families do.

The article goes on to present advocates’ criticism of the state board not including rates for high schools: “This is where the school-to-prison pipeline starts, it’s where you can address a problem before it becomes a crisis,” said Rob Manwaring, a senior education policy advisor for Children Now, a statewide child advocacy organization. “These are kids that need the extra attention before they get to the point where they are not graduating.”

Here, again, language is misused to misdirect accountability. The phrase school-to-prison pipeline implies that students are going from school to prison, and therefore there is something counterproductive about school. A more accurate wording would be a “cut school, hang out with the wrong people, fail classes, drop out of school” to prison pipeline. Very few students who are in school consistently, doing what school asks of them, going to class, doing their assignments, passing their classes, graduating, etc., go on to prison. And even fewer students who are doing well in school go to prison. And we all know that parental example and expectation is the most powerful effect on children everywhere, so the family buy-in to school is the issue that correlates with success in school. True, there are too many children who have little or no pro-school parental or familial example and support from which to learn. But the accountability for that should not be on the school. It should be on the community. What we need are community accountability dashboards, not school and district dashboards. Do the community’s families/members have adequate basic income, housing, health care, even some sort of feeling of having enough that studies show increases scores on tests? Is there enough funding of schools by the populace? Is their community buy-in to the schools?

The metrics of the accountability movement such as this new absenteeism metric overwhelmingly measure differences in the lives of the children and families outside of school, not differences in what they experience in school. Life gaps. And schools reflect the communities the schools are in and the families that attend them. Further dinging the school districts for another manifestation–absenteeism–of this variance in society doesn’t help the students or the schools, it just increases the burden that the accountability movement has placed on schools, which is counterproductive as it inevitably results in school districts allocating scarce money to try to address the issues, money spent that hasn’t lead to any difference in the outcomes. It’s not like school districts haven’t tried to increase attendance. Schools are funded based on attendance so they have tried many things: making home visits, hiring special advocates, sending automated letters to parents for absences, convening student attendance review teams and student attendance review boards, etc. Some school districts and cities even cited parents for having truant children. I asked our PUSD’s Assistant Superintendent for School Support Services, Dr. Eric Sahakian, what efforts have been underway recently in PUSD to improve attendance. He reported the following:

“Starting in September of 2018, the Office of Child Welfare, Attendance, and Safety (CWAS) developed two detailed guides for our school sites. These guides include our Attendance Awareness Month Guide and our School-Site Attendance Improvement Team Guide. The Attendance Awareness Month Guide provides school with numerous tools and interventions that can be used year round to boost attendance. The School-Site Attendance Improvement Team Guide outlined how to develop and maintain an attendance improvement team at each individual school site. In addition, the CWAS team met with an administrator at each individual school in September to introduce the School-Site Attendance Improvement Team initiative and provide guidance in rolling it out.

Currently the CWAS team is performing follow-up meetings with each school administration and their Attendance Improvement Teams. During these meetings, we provide guidance and suggested strategies to focus their attendance improvement efforts. So far, we have had follow-up meetings with Attendance Improvement Teams at Wilson Middle, Washington STEAM, Blair, Marshall, Webster, Jackson, and Altadena Elementary. These meetings will continue throughout the school year.

In addition, the CWAS team provided monthly reports to schools to assist in their attendance recovery efforts. These include:

  • Monthly YTD Attendance Percentages by School Site – Shared with all Principal’s, District Personnel, and attendance clerks. Displays attendance percentages for each month and historical yearly comparisons.
  • Monthly YTD Chronic Absentee rate by School Site – Displays the YTD Chronic Absentee Rate by month. Yearly comparisons not yet available as this is a new measure.
  • Monthly Chronic Absenteeism detailed student list – Chronic Absentees are listed per site and details of total absence, absence type, parent/guardian, teacher (elementary school), GPA (high school), SpEd Status, etc.

The School Attendance Review Board will be meeting December 19th. This will be the board’s third meeting so far this year. With tomorrow’s SARB hearing included, we have held SARB hearings for 32 students. So Far, most of our SARB referrals have come from Washington STEAM, Blair, and Marshall. The new Clinical Director at Hathaway-Sycamore attended our last hearing as a new Panel Member. She stated that she has been involved in SARB in other districts in the past, but our SARB really stood out. She stated that our SARB was “very organized, empowering for the family, supportive and firm.” After our December SARB hearing, we have five hearing dates planned for the remainder of the school year.

Our Alternative to Suspension Program has been working tirelessly to provide both behavior and attendance interventions for our students. Instead of being suspended for an offense, students are given the option of the Alternative to Suspension Program. The ATS Program allows the district to gain the ADA it would have lost through suspension and allows the student to not have a suspension on their record. So far 64 students have been referred to the ATS Program this school year. ATS also provides follow-up support and attendance counseling for all students that have attended the program.

Through the Office of Student & Family Services, we now have a Senior Community Advocate that is providing attendance guidance and assistance to both our homeless families and families with Kinder through 2nd grade students. She is making calls and meeting with each family to build a rapport, discover their greatest barriers to attendance, and providing assistance to break down these barriers. The Senior Community Advocate also provides parent education services about attendance.

Finally, the CWAS office is currently in the planning phase of a new attendance campaign for the spring semester. This campaign is scheduled to rollout at the end of January.”

These efforts and others over the years haven’t resulted in any significant change to attendance rates, so increasing the accountability on the schools doesn’t make any sense. Putting the responsibility for attendance on the schools also furthers the belief that the government should solve all problems, i.e., the idea of a nanny state. This is not a good idea as telling people what to do generally doesn’t work and people don’t develop personal responsibility under those conditions, so in fact it is counterproductive.

The accountability movement has been around now for decades–in California since at least the Public School Accountability Act of 1999–and hasn’t resulted in any significant improvement in any of the measures of the so-called gap between students of different socioeconomic statuses. Title I funding to compensate for the challenges faced by low-income families and students has been around for over 50 years, and there hasn’t been any noticeable change in the measures and gaps that the accountability movement wants to change because the lives of the students are still very different. Adding more metrics won’t help that. We already knew that many families allow their kids to miss school for various reasons. Some families need the kids to watch smaller children. Some need them to work. Some take vacations when it is convenient for the family. Some prioritize many different family-related events over attending school. Some can only schedule doctor’s appointment during school. Some families allow anxious children going through developmental stages to miss school. Etc.

If we want attendance to improve, we will need the help of the community in many ways. Fostering an intrinsic motivation to attend school starts in the home, the church, the neighborhood and community. True, we can make sure the school is as welcoming and understanding as possible of the various student needs. And many schools whose families have the ability and time to volunteer have teams of parent volunteers who provide many support roles at the school to help with daily parent and student needs. In other schools there are groups of dedicated folks who are working at this effort through mentoring, like Northwest Pasadena’s Mentoring and Partnership for Youth Development. We will need more of this mentoring, role modeling and creating of an extended family and less of putting the onus on schools and government if we want attendance to improve.

 

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