The University of Chicago News Office
July 28, 1996 Press Contact: Sabrina Miller
(773) 702-4195

Chicago Public Schools students find ways to be truant–even when in school

When Malik, who attends Chicago’s public schools, was in 8th grade, he had big goals for high school: to be on the basketball team and to be valedictorian. Now he spends most of his school hours in the lunchroom, playing “spades.” The only class he’s passing, or attending regularly, is geometry, where the teacher “wanted us in class and helps you really want to learn.”

A new University of Chicago study shows that high school truancy efforts often miss students like Malik (whose name has been changed) who go to school. The study, by Melissa Roderick, Assistant Professor at the University’s School of Social Service Administration, argues that school efforts to improve attendance need to look more broadly at how truancy occurs, and the many ways students can be absent. When considering class skipping and inconsistent attendance, almost two thirds of ninth graders miss two or more weeks of instruction in a major subject by the end of the year, Roderick says.

The University of Chicago study, published with assistance from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, is titled, "Habits Hard to Break: A New Look at Truancy in Chicago’s High Schools.” The analysis of student records in the ninth-grade class of 1995-96 shows:

  • Educators must consider a broader definition of “truant.” Chicago Public Schools have two truancy problems–students who don’t attend school and students who come to school more or less regularly but then cut classes. The two problems suggest different kinds of solutions.
  • Spotty attendance begins early in high school and then gets worse. By the spring of 1996, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of CPS ninth graders missed two or more weeks of class in at least one major subject.
  • Much of the truancy happens because of class cutting, and these students are in and around the schools. About 40 percent of students who miss a month or more of classes each semester, considered “extreme truants," are attending school, but cutting classes.
  • Even top students cut classes often. More than 40 percent of the highest-achieving ninth graders missed two or more weeks of classes in at least one major subject in the second semester of 1996.
The example of Malik illustrates that Chicago Public Schools need to take a different look at the problem of truancy in Chicago. Most schools focus on students who don’t come to school at all for long periods of time.

“This approach misses students who come to school and then skip classes or those who mix inconsistent attendance with course skipping–a group that makes up a high proportion of truant students,” Roderick says. “And yet, these are the students who are easiest to help through prevention–getting students off on the right foot and taking care of business within our buildings so that students know that cutting is not acceptable. What we find in schools that have made progress on truancy is that they create strong and positive learning environments.”

A successful program to reduce truancy today requires: developing basic infrastructures in high schools that provide timely information on when students cut class; providing smaller, more personalized environments where teachers can work closely together, can get to know a student and establish norms; plus timely follow-up with a student so they don’t get caught in a downward spiral.

“Cutting is easy in large high schools without adult monitoring, strong school cultures or orderly school environments,” says Roderick. “Not going to school or cutting classes are both vicious cycles.”

Her study also suggests that schools also must move away from thinking of truancy as a delinquency problem solved by punishment. Too often, these punishments don’t deal with the underlying problem and actually make them worse. Roderick argues that a better approach maximizes learning and minimizes time outside of the classroom–such as requiring students to make up homework after school for a missed class rather than in-school or out-of-school suspensions.

“A student may not go to class initially because she doesn’t like the teacher, is having academic difficulty, her friends pressure her to stay at lunch, or she just didn’t do the homework for the day,” Roderick says. “Without an immediate reaction from school staff or other adults, cutting becomes an option rather than facing that teacher or making up homework. Eventually, when a student returns to class, she realizes that she is very far behind.”

Roderick’s research team visited many high schools around the city that were making progress reducing truancy. Some are profiled in the report. The study looked at full-day absences as reported on students’ transcripts, and class cutting according to school records.

Roderick offers three major themes and specific recommendations for solving the problems:

  • Reducing truancy requires school-wide improvement. “In effective schools, adults work together to develop tailored solutions consistent with broader efforts to improve student learning.”
  • High schools must provide basic infrastructures that support efforts to improve attendance, such as smaller, more personalized environments where teachers can get to know students and define norms.

  • Provide opportunities for teachers and staff to get to know and work with students.

  • Identify truants and class cutters early, before recovery is difficult.

  • Work with parents to monitor and intervene on behalf of students.

  • Truancy is an academic problem and the solutions must be linked to the classroom and learning. “The more students are invested in school, the greater the leverage for adults in enforcing good behavior and good decision-making.”

  • Have clear plans for reintegration and academic recovery.

  • Design responses to class cutting and tardiness to maximize learning and minimize time outside the classroom.

  • Schools must pay attention to the needs of students who have high full-day absences. “Students who miss a month or more of school often have multiple problems and may need extra support, outreach and attention.”

  • Open better lines of communication between elementary and high-school teachers.

  • Schools must find ways to fill critical mental health and social service gaps for students at risk of failure.
Schools across the city differ in their truancy rates. Some, like Curie and Gage Park, show that urban high schools can lower truancy rates. (See school details in report.)

As school reform progresses in CPS, there is great opportunity to improve each high schools’ learning environment and increase schools’ ability to address attendance problems, Roderick says.

“High schools need to take a more proactive stance in identifying student problems and promoting needed service integration in school communities," Roderick says. “Such developments are the essential spirit of 1988 reform–community members working together to advance opportunities for all of our children.”

The study, published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, is part of an ongoing study of Chicago Public High Schools. The research is supported in part by The Steans Family Foundation, The Mcdougal Family Foundation, The Center for Research of the Education of Students Placed at Risk, The Spencer Foundation and Chicago Public Schools.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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