Rosalinda Guererro is a junior at Thomas Kelly High School in good standing. Not long ago, that seemed all but impossible. She missed dozens of days during her freshman year.
“At the time I didn't see no point in being in school. ... Nothing was really motivating me,” Rosalinda said. “When I would go, I would just wait for it to turn 2:45 (p.m.).”
She was a chronic truant -- a vexing and long-standing problem plaguing the Chicago Public Schools.
Kelly High School and its feeder elementary schools on the Southwest Side are making inroads in drawing back truant students, thanks to an effort to give troubled kids extra support and guidance.
But most Chicago Public Schools aren’t so lucky.
For the most part, CPS leaves it up to principals to decide if they have any money to devote to these missing students.
CPS budgeted $1.3 million this year to give schools to help with truancy. According to state data, half the students at 108 schools are chronically truant.
But this year, district officials issued a protocol and a 178-page guidebook for how school staff should attempt to improve attendance rates. It also has a new data system that alerts schools when students are starting to develop a truancy pattern.
“We recognize that truancy remains a concern for some of our students and we are investing time and resources into initiatives that will help reduce truancy throughout the city," said CPS spokesman Mike Passman in a statement.
The exact number of chronically truant students in Chicago is a matter of debate, but no one disputes that the district’s numbers are stubbornly high. Students missing more than 5 percent of the school year with no valid excuse are considered chronic truants. That’s nine days or nearly two weeks of school.
About 32 percent of Chicago students are chronic truants, up from 27 percent in 2015, according to state report card data released this fall. The state average is about 10 percent.
CPS officials said the state is double counting students who transfer schools mid-year. They said 25 percent of the city’s roughly 400,000 students were chronically truant last year.
CPS officials said the district tracks chronic truancy rates, but does not use them for accountability, nor will it publicly release school level data. District officials defended using average daily attendance rates, saying that it holds schools accountable for students who are absent for more than nine days. However, those officials did not explain why they don’t look at both measures, as the state does.
Chronic truancy rates aren’t published for individual schools, nor does CPS use the data in its school rating system, making it easier to ignore this intractable problem.
But some principals said they are well aware that there’s a group of students who miss a lot of school. They say these children and teens are often dealing with the heaviest problems, like homelessness.
Given all that, school principals in Brighton Park said they are grateful for a program provided by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. The group supports Kelly High School and four feeder schools, giving each one an extra case manager and counselor to work with chronically truant students. They are planning to add a 5th one this year.
“They are integral to how Kelly works,” says Kelly’s assistant principal Liddell McGuire.
Council Executive Director Patrick Brosnan said he pays for the program with a violence prevention grant from the Cook County’s Judicial Advisory Council. Principals identified chronic truancy as a top problem in the Brighton Park neighborhood, which has a large Latino community surrounded by factories and big freight train yards.
Brosnan said he sees a connection between violence in the neighborhood and truancy. He points to newspaper reports on shooting victims to make his point.
“It is full of 16- and 17-year-olds that are no longer in school, and there's no one who is connected to them,” he said. “We see it every day.”
Peter Auffant, principal of Shields Middle School, said that without the extra staff he gets from the community organization, he would have to devote some of his budget to reach truants and their families.
“The question is what suffers,” he said. “Is it after school programs? Is it a teacher position we have to redefine as a counselor?”
Rocio Rosales, principal of Brighton Park’s Nathan S. Davis Elementary School, said she and her assistant principal would be the only ones tracking down chronically truant students if the neighborhood council didn’t help.
At the high school level, problems at home sometimes lead to students falling in with the wrong crowd -- the crowd that’s not into school. And sometimes the disconnect at home allows the absenteeism to continue.
That’s what happened to Rosalinda.
She said she wasn’t living with her parents at the time she “started hanging out with the wrong crowd.” She said when she started living with her grandfather, he would get a robocall from school noting her absence.
She said she would tell him it was a mistake but “we both knew that I was lying.”
When she went to school, Rosalinda said she spent a lot of time in the office of the attendance dean, Efrain Gonzalez-Reyes.
Gonzalez-Reyes said he saw a bright young woman who needed some direction. He referred her to Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s program.
“Even at her worst, she always has this confidence about her and this thing. ... She knew what was not working for her,” he said.
The council’s staff not only helped talk her through her frustrations and problems, but also helped her map out a way to get back on track, Rosalinda said, adding she had almost no credits at the end of freshman year.
It took Saturday school, night school and credit recovery. But now she’s thinking about what to do when she graduates high school.
(Jack Howard / WBEZ)
This story has been updated on Dec. 19 to add more information from CPS.