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Curious City

Could Truant Officers Return To Chicago Public Schools?

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Editor's note: The podcast episode has two segments. The portion dealing with our update concerning what happened to truancy officers begins at 8 minutes and 45 seconds into the program. The original report details why CPS truancy officers were eliminated and how the district has struggled with chronic truancy.

There are lots of reasons why kids cut class: issues at home, issues with friends, undiagnosed disabilities, etc. But for a while now, Chicago Public Schools has been without a consistent, district-wide mechanism to physically find those students and bring them back to school. Years ago, CPS had a specific job position to perform this work. This is a short update on a question we answered about the fate of those workers.

To refresh your memory, here’s the original question we received from Curious Citizen Saundra Oglesby:

Why aren’t there truant officers, riding around like they used to?

While we answered Saundra’s question earlier this year, we learned that this job position was eliminated back in 1992. At that time, the district faced a $315 million dollar budget shortfall and, to close the gap, it laid off each one of its 150 truant officers.

So, if all of this is 20-year-old history, and we’ve answered this question before, why look at it again?

Well, first off, we never heard from someone who actually did the work for CPS. We had tried to find a former CPS truant officer ... but failed. Luckily, though, a former truant officer found us after he heard our story, and he can now provide an account of the nitty gritty, pavement-pounding nature of his former job.

And, more importantly, we’re tackling some news: A state task force took a hard look at this question, too, and it suggested some fixes for CPS to improve its record when it comes to keeping kids in class. It turns out the state of Illinois is interested in having truant officers return to CPS — at least in theory.

The trouble with truancy

It’s clear that in the years since CPS let go of its truant officers, the district struggled to tamp down chronic absenteeism. A student is considered chronically absent if he or she misses nine or more days of school without a valid excuse. Back in the day, if a kid was missing much class, a principal could call on a truant officer to track the student them down. Since eliminating the position, the district has tried everything from robocalls to tasking traditional teachers with the work.

But truancy has remained a big problem. As Catalyst Chicago magazine reported — and the district confirmed — a little more than a quarter of of CPS students were chronically truant during the 2013-2014 school year.And a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that one in eight elementary school students missed the equivalent of a month or more during the 2010 school year. In other words, if a student keeps at that pace, he or she could miss a year of schooling before beginning high school. Stats like that prompted the state of Illinois to create a task force to come up with fixes to CPS’ “empty desk epidemic.

Among other things, the task force recommends that districts use consistent language and terminology when it comes to attendance and truancy. Task force members also want better, real-time attendance data that can be accessed by key stakeholders such as state agencies, district officials, school staff and parents. They want better coordination between community and state service providers, so that families and students with insecure housing aren’t lost in the system.

But number one on the task force’s list: Bring back truant officers. According to the 150-page Final Report of the Truancy in Public Schools Task Force, “the strategy most identified as necessary to combat absenteeism and truancy in CPS schools by reporters, researchers, community leaders and parents was the re-institution of truancy officers.”

Again, Curious City tried to track one of those officers down for our first story — but we couldn’t find one. True to form, one found us.

Meet officer Nelson

Patrick Nelson was right out of college when he applied to be a substitute teacher with CPS. But a chance run-in with the person in charge of the district’s dropout prevention program steered him toward a full-time position as a truant officer. There were about 150 officers covering more than 600 schools at the time, so he was responsible for between five and seven schools. His territory was around the old Cabrini Green public housing development, which, in the early ‘90s was overrun by poverty and crime.

(Photo courtesy Patrick Nelson)
“It would often be the case that the parents themselves didn’t have the way with all [sic] to understand the importance of education,” he says. “Life had given them such a thrashing, they’re living in a situation of denial.”

Nelson had to navigate those issues while also enforcing the compulsory education law, which states that every child age 6 to 17 be in a school setting. He describes one situation he had with a fourth grader living in the housing project. Every time he checked on the boy, he says, there were boxes — tons of them — just sitting inside the front door of the apartment.

“She stated that ‘I am only here temporarily,’” he says. “Well, I was at that school for two years and I would visit that kid off and on,those boxes were at that door. She was in a state of denial about where she was and what was important. I could only do what I could do to stabilize that particular student and make him feel welcome at school.”

Nelson says he tried to be as positive and uplifting with children as possible, to show them that someone cared — and noticed — they were missing. He went to their homes and local playlots, but he steered clear of the kids who were getting into trouble or selling drugs on the corner. He believes his job called for the enforcement of one law, while the rest fell under local police’s jurisdiction. And, Nelson says, he had a great relationship with the Chicago Police Department. If he saw a kid was up to no good, he filed the necessary paperwork; it worked both ways. He had his own safety to consider too.

“You don’t want to get in the way of someone’s revenue stream,” Nelson explains. “Oftentimes in the community, the student who was out of the street, selling drugs or whatever, is one of the sole breadwinners of the family. And when you get in front of a family’s revenue stream and you make trouble for them ... To me, that’s not really positive.”

A catch-all strategy?

Recall that a state task force recommended the return of truant officers to CPS. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The group does recommend the district re-commit itself to the idea of truant officers, but it’s a new idea of truant officers. These attendance coordinators should do more than physically find students and return them to school; they should also have a background in psychology or social work, data analysis and training in counseling.

Jeff Aranowski with the State Board of Education says the task force did not get into the day-to-day function of the attendance coordinators, other than that they be “the central person responsible for both community-basis, school-wide basis, a district-wide basis for those kids and tracking those kids.” He says the task force didn’t want to come up with a list of recommendations with price tags attached.

“We were also cognizant that we didn’t want to leave things off the list of recommendations that we thought would actually have a great impact,” he says.

The task force shared its recommendations with CPS and the General Assembly at the end of July. In turn, the district shared a draft of its new attendance improvement and truancy prevention plans. As for whether an attendance coordinator would have enough time in the day to pound pavement, crunch numbers, counsel families, report on and revisit individual cases ... Aranowski says he’s not sure.

“That’s why we wanted someone where their role was attendance coordinator,” he says. “Whether that would mean an extra hat for an existing employee not having time to do that, I don’t think that would be best practice. But again, putting the rubber to the road as it were, we’re going to have to see what CPS comes up with in terms of their policy.”

Aranowski says there are few statutory requirements of what an attendance policy would look like, and he thinks the task force will be able to weigh in, whether they agree with CPS’ policy or not.

As for Nelson, he thinks a catch-all position is doomed to fail.

“You put too much plumbing in the works, you’re gonna get clogs,” he says.

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

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