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Staff At Four Chicago High Schools Falsified Student Attendance Records

Staff at four Chicago public high schools on the South and West sides changed attendance records over the past four years to make it look like more students were in school, according to a new report.

The inspector general for Chicago Public Schools, Nicholas Schuler, found the falsifications amounted to systematic fraud.

The inspector general recommended two school principals be fired: Tyese Sims, the former principal at Orr High School and now Bradwell Elementary, and Trista Harper, the principal at Manley High School. The other two high schools involved were not named by the inspector general but were identified in a separate Chicago Sun-Times report as Team Englewood and Marshall.

Reporting last year by education reporter Kate Grossman helped prompt the inspector general’s report. Grossman also reported the inspector general’s findings Thursday for the Sun-Times. She joined WBEZ’s Jenn White Thursday to discuss her findings.

Q: Tell us about the scheme at these four schools. Who was involved and how did they work?

A: There were basically two different schemes, and they were typically orchestrated by the principals and carried out by clerks or attendance coordinators. The basic idea was that individual teachers would mark a kid absent and then later in the day the clerks would “clean attendance,” which means they would change those unexcused absences to “present,” or some other function that basically said that the kids were there. 

There were two kinds: One, a kid who would show up at school for any point in the day, he would get marked being present the whole day, even if he was only there for one period or just showed up for lunch. The other was a little more sophisticated [and it was] called "attendance recovery." A kid would cut one or two classes and then they were supposed to make up that time after school, either through a detention or a study session. But what often happened is there was either no detention -- nothing -- or they would be asked to make up multiple periods after school.

The bottom line with both of these things is that they’re not allowed by CPS policy and the IG found them to be fraudulent.

Q: Why would a principal be motivated to do this?

A: There’s a few reasons. The first is that these four schools that the IG focused on are all struggling neighborhood high schools and they’re under tremendous pressure to improve. Their attendance ratings [and] their attendance rates factor into their school rankings, which are really important, and also principal evaluations. And the more kids you have in a building, the more money you get. So there’s a lot of pressure. 

The more generous explanation is that teachers and principals want to give kids a second chance. A lot of these kids are struggling. They have lots of reasons beyond their control why they’re not getting to school on time. And so they really want to find ways to help these kids out, which makes a lot of sense. 

But what happened, I think -- according to the IG and my own reporting -- is that these things were really perversely contorted. So what started out as a good thing really went out of control. [They] were passing kids along and giving them credit without doing any work, and I’m not sure that’s good for the kids.

Q: This is only four schools that we’re talking about. So why should a Chicago resident care?

A: A couple reasons. It’s only four schools but it’s a pattern. It suggests it could be a lot of schools. It calls into question CPS’s data in general about attendance. 

This is a larger theme in Chicago. We’ve been seeing a lot of positive trends in Chicago attendance rates, dropouts, graduations; they’re all headed in the right direction and the mayor and CPS have been touting them. But this is one of several stories that have come out in the last year or two that call into question the quality of the data. So for all of us who care about really having a school system that is, in fact, improving, so that kids are actually getting a better education… we really need to know this data is accurate. Whether we’re improving or just the appearance of improvement.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment.

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