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School works only if kids show up

OlgNunez is student Latino Youth an alternative public school Little Village.

Olga Nunez is a student at Latino Youth, an alternative public school in Little Village.

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Updated: January 10, 2014 6:06AM

Nothing a school does matters much if the kids don’t show up. As red-hot debates continue over how best to improve schools — More testing or less testing? Charter schools or traditional schools? Common Core learning standards as salvation or damnation? — we’d all do well to ponder this simple truism, particularly in urban America.

If kids aren’t showing up, often sidelined by the long list of problems associated with being poor, the other stuff matters little.

Put another way, if we don’t devote the time, energy and resources to dealing with the social problems and safety concerns that often keep students away, little else really matters.

Take Olga Nunez, 19, who showed up at her public school in Maywood her junior year for just five minutes a day, for attendance, before she eventually dropped out: “There were fights at school every day. . . . I didn’t want to walk to school, knowing that was going on.”

Or consider Carlton Harris, also 19, who turned up at Senn High School on Chicago’s North Side just once a month during the fall of his junior year. He then was arrested on a gun charge and spent eight months in jail. He blames himself, says he started hanging with the wrong crowd and chasing the fast life.

The counselor tried her best to track him down, he said, and the school was “very encouraging. It’s just that my mind was in the wrong place.”

The number of chronically truant students like Olga and Carlton — both of whom re-enrolled in alternative high schools last year and now are on track to graduate — is astounding. Chicago had 342,500 truant students in 2012 and 111,000 “chronic truants,” defined as students with at least nine unexcused absences, according to state data highlighted last week by advocates pushing for more resources for dropouts and students at risk of dropping out.

Statewide, there are 749,000 truants and 182,000 chronic truants, according to data compiled by Chicago’s Alternative Schools Network.

Truancy numbers are up significantly over the last several years, reflecting a far more accurate picture of the problem. In 2009, CPS started taking attendance in every class period, rather than just once a day. And in 2012, the state dropped from 18 to nine the number of unexcused absences that trigger the “chronic truant” label.

The truancy and dropout problems are on the state’s and CPS’ radar. A state task force on truancy in CPS, prompted by high elementary rates highlighted by the Chicago Tribune in a series last year, met for the first time Friday, one of several state efforts in recent years.

And CPS has made progress in trying to re-enroll dropouts. A top priority of the schools’ CEO, CPS by next fall will have more than doubled its alternative high school seats, from 5,400 to 10,000 seats. It also launched re-enrollment centers in three neighborhoods and created a policy to evaluate alternative school performance for the first time.

“The teachers, they’re on you,” Olga Nunez said of the staff at her small, alternative public school, Latino Youth. She is due to graduate from the Little Village school in January. “If you miss a day, they’ll text and ask what happened. . . . What I didn’t learn in four years [in regular high school], I’ve learned in a year and half.”

CPS is making a strong effort on dropouts, yet it still fails to reach all in need — CPS estimates that 56,000 youth are out of school or are significantly off track for graduation — and the re-enrollment push does little for regular high school students who have yet to drop out but are at serious risk of doing so.

That is the work of the traditional schools, but far too many lack the social and emotional supports — social workers, counselors, truancy officers and widespread behavior management programs — to help students deal with the social problems that get in the way of learning and keep them out of school.

If only the red-hot debates on education would deal with that.

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