What the heck happened to Chicago's truancy officers?

The officers have been gone for decades, but the city’s truancy problem remains.

June 4, 2014

Editor's note: This story has an update that relates to recommendations that a state task force makes regarding attendance policy and school staffing.  

Over the past few years, Curious City has answered many questions about Chicago streets: why they get cleaned, why some get names but others receive numbers, and why portions of the Kennedy Expressway sometimes switch directions.

But what caught Saundra Oglesby’s attention is what’s missing from city streets, or rather who has been missing. We met Saundra just once, but her question needs little clarification:

Why aren't truancy officers riding around like they used to?

Saundra — a resident of Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood — is referring to the men and women once employed by Chicago Public Schools to track down students who did not turn up for class.

“When we was growing up, they would pick us up, take us to the school, call our parents and say, ‘Hey, this kid is not in school, why aren’t you in school?’” Oglesby recalled.

Hers is a fair question and, we learned, a timely one.

The city’s truancy officers were cut decades ago, but the problem they were tasked with solving — chronic, unexcused absence from school — persists and it’s hurt kids, communities and the school district itself.

In May of this year, Catalyst Chicago magazine revealed that a little more than one quarter of CPS students were chronically truant last year. The district verified that report. (At CPS, a student qualifies as chronically truant if she misses 5 percent of the school year — or about nine days — without an accepted excuse. Prior to the 2011-2012 school year, the threshold was 18 missed days, or 10 percent of the school year.)

The truancy situation’s considered bad enough that Illinois lawmakers want recommendations of how to get more Chicago kids to show up at school.

Truancy officers don’t make the cut

For nearly fifty years truancy officers in Chicago knocked on doors, called students’ friends and relatives, and stalked neighborhood haunts to find wayward kids. They would also figure out what was happening in children’s lives — at home, in the streets or at school — that would keep them from class.

But the job title — at least at the district level — disappeared after 1992.

Aarti Dhupelia, CPS’ Chief Officer for College and Career Success, says at that time CPS faced a $315 million shortfall, and the administration at the time zeroed in on truancy officers.  

“We actually had as many as 150 truancy officers district wide,” Dhupelia explained. “Due to unclear evidence of their effectiveness as well as budget constraints, those positions were eliminated.”

The district estimated a savings of about $15 million that year, and that it wouldn’t miss the truancy officers. Dhupelia says officers could find kids and bring them to school “but they could not answer the larger question of why did children leave school in the first place.”

In fact, even with truancy officers in place in the early 1990s, Chicago had the highest high school dropout rate in the country. In the years after the officers were cut, the district’s dropout rate improved, but the district’s truancy rates remained above the state average.

That’s despite various efforts over the years, including dedicated truancy outreach and re-engagement centers.

(More on CPS’ anti-truancy efforts)

Truancy and fallout

The consequences of missed days of school add up, a realization all too familiar to Chicago Tribune reporter David Jackson.

In 2012 Jackson was tipped off to what appeared to be a growing attendance problem. A juvenile court judge told him she was shocked by the number of young kids who were out of school and in her courtroom.

“She noted that those were the kids obviously involved in delinquency and crimes on the streets,” Jackson remembered. “What they were doing when they weren’t in school was either not safe for them or for the community.”

So Jackson and reporter Gary Marx asked for access to a highly-protected CPS attendance database, which tracks — kid-by-kid — how often a student misses class. The newspaper team fought a losing legal battle over access to the data. (Jackson said the information is not made public for several good reasons, including privacy.)

Truant: A student who is absent for no valid cause. Valid excuses include illness, death in the family, family emergency, special religious holiday and case-by-case special circumstances.

Truancy: Being absent without cause for one or more days

Chronic truancy: Being absent, without an excuse, for five percent of the previous 180 school days (a full school year) — or, about nine days for CPS students.

Jackson decided to go at it again in 2012 when CPS was embroiled in several of the biggest stories in Chicago (and the nation): at one time the district faced a punishing teacher’s strike, school closings and consolidations and escalating violence. After the Tribune team stripped down the original requests, they received the numbers from the 2010-2011 school year. Jackson concluded that the district was facing a truancy crisis.

“We found in the database — and this is an extremely conservative number — that at least one in eight elementary students in Chicago missed four weeks of school [during the year we studied],” Jackson recounted.

Translation: If students retain that pattern of missing school between kindergarten and eighth grade, they could miss a year of school before they begin high school.

And, as Yale University criminologist Tracey Meares explained, education is vital to survival. Meares has spent time studying networks of gun violence in the city of Chicago. She believes the most effective way to save lives — and prevent a young person from falling prey to gang and gun violence — is to teach them to read.

“Making sure that children can read by 3rd grade is probably one of the most important things that any city can do with respect to violent crime in the long term,” Meares said. “Our research shows that people, young men, who drop out from high school, are much more likely to be gang-involved than those who are not.”

They’re going to learn from someone

John Paul Jones, the president of Sustainable Englewood Initiatives, said the truancy issue has left the South Side neighborhood with a lot of children learning from others on the street.

“The ex-offenders, the alcoholics, other persons who are just not productive in the community life and those are the ones they’re around. And so, it puts them in the way of violence,” he said. “It puts them in the way of doing things that puts them and the community at risk.”

One long-term effect of chronic truancy, Jones explained, is that young people in the community aren’t rewarded for getting ahead in school.

“Those who do wrong get celebrated when they come back from prison. They come back, there’s a cluster of guys who welcome them back,” said Jones. But he feels that kind of welcome’s not extended to returning college students.

“You come back and you may have somebody who not as thrilled about you coming back,” he said.

Another victim: CPS

So kids are directly hurt by chronic truancy and, according to Jones, a whole community can be, too. But as we dug into this question about the absence of truancy officers in Chicago, we found that there’s likely another victim: CPS.

Public school districts are reimbursed by the state and federal governments based on how many kids show up. This complicated formula can be likened to a mortgage calculator.

A 2010 internal CPS report, obtained by the Tribune, suggested CPS could have garnered an additional $11.5 million in state funds if district attendance that year had been just 1 percent higher. Or, in numbers more people can digest, CPS estimated it lost $111 each time a student missed a day.

Jackson and his reporting team found that more often than not, truancy officers practically paid for themselves.

Will Chicago ever welcome back truancy officers?

Jackson and his Tribune colleagues looked at how other school districts around the state and country tackle truancy. Jackson said in many districts, dedicated truancy officers could handle a key function of finding who was missing on any given day of school, and then prioritizing which ones to reach out to. The kids, Jackson, said, were often findable.

“It’s not that they disappear into a Bermuda Triangle,” he said.

But do observations like this an argument make an argument in favor of truancy officers?

CPS doesn’t take it that way.

“I think that tackling attendance truancy and attendance is really an ‘it takes a village’ issue,” said CPS’ Dhupelia. “It’s not something that the district can tackle alone. It’s something that families need to tackle, that the district needs to tackle, it’s something that community partners, elected officials need to help tackle.”

It so happens Chicago’s truancy problems are being tackled by elected officials and other stakeholders. The legislature created a Chicago Public Schools Truancy Task Force to recommend how to improve CPS’ attendance record.

To find out what the task force thinks of truancy officers, Curious City, spoke to one of its members: Jeffrey Aranowski, who’s with the Illinois State Board of Education.

“If you look across the state, most all counties have truant officers employed either by districts or regional offices of education, they’re very active. CPS seems to be a little bit of an outlier there,” he said. “But again, whether or not that’s something that’s appropriate or even will be recommended by the task force is yet to be seen.”

The task force’s homework is due soon; as of this writing, it’s set for the end of July. By then state lawmakers hope to have final recommendations on how to address truancy in CPS schools.

Perhaps by then, Chicago will know whether the state would like to see truancy officers return to its streets.

Special thanks to David Jackson of the Chicago Tribune and Melissa Sanchez of Catalyst Chicago magazine.

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow her @katieobez.


Additional information: CPS' current anti-truancy efforts

Chicago Public Schools is currently expanding what it calls SOAR (Student Outreach and Re-engagement) centers. There are currently centers in three city neighborhoods: Roseland, Little Village and Garfield Park. The centers are to support all students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out. Across the engagement centers are 15 re-engagement specialists who focus on recruiting and guiding students back into school. CPS says that since the February 2013 launch, SOAR Centers have served 1,615 students.

CPS’ Aarti Dhupelia says that over the past several months, CPS has developed a comprehensive attendance and truancy strategy that focuses on the root causes of truancy. That strategy, she says, is two-fold.

  • Building universal systems in schools that prevent absenteeism: Coach schools on how to build a positive culture around attendance and helping them monitor attendance regularly. Dhupelia says the district is building data tools to enable documentation and tracking.
  • Targeted interventions: Identifying the root cause of a student’s absence and connecting them to resources to address it so that the child can return to a school environment.

Additional information: Definitions

Attendance rate = percentage of days present out of total days enrolled

Absence rate = percentage of days absent out of total days enrolled; includes excuses, unexcused and suspensions

Truant: A student who is absent for no valid cause. Valid excuses include illness, death in the family, family emergency, special religious holiday and case-by-case special circumstances.

Truancy: Being absent without cause for one or more days

Chronic truancy: Being absent, without an excuse, for five percent of the previous 180 school days (a full school year) — or, about nine days for CPS students.

Chronically absent: Missing at least 18 school days, whether excused or unexcused.