The Chicago Board of Education will vote Wednesday to get rid of a long-standing policy that requires high schools to fail students who are chronically absent.
The already generous existing policy prevents students from moving to the next grade if they are absent without an excuse for 20 percent of the school year. That’s 36 days.
This is a surprise move likely to raise questions about whether it’s being done to boost graduation rates. Mayor Rahm Emanuel touts improving graduation rates as one of his key achievements. Some teachers, who say they already feel pressure to pass students, also might oppose the policy.
At the same time, it is unclear to what extent the existing attendance rule is actually being followed. Chicago Public Schools officials say they have not done a “deep dive” to find out.
The new high school promotion policy also strikes this sentence: “The Board of Education also recognizes that students must attend classes in order to achieve their highest levels of learning.”
Yet Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said school district leaders still believe attendance is vital. But she thinks it should not be tied to promotion.
“We want to make sure we are not creating barriers for students, who may have had some problems with attendance,” she said.
McDade said the school district needs to work on truancy by reaching out to chronically absent students to see how they can be helped.
If students do the work and show they understand the material, they should be allowed to move on to the next grade, she said. It’s also important to note that students must pass a certain number of classes to move on to the next high school grade and accumulate enough credits to graduate.
She said the proposed attendance rule change stems from a review of several schools that have moved to what’s called “competency-based” learning. In this learning model, students who prove they are proficient in a subject can move on to the next course, regardless of how much time they have spent in a certain class.
Six Chicago schools are part of a state competency-based pilot program this year, with five more to join in the fall.
The Chicago Teachers Union has discussed the pilot program with the school district and the union generally supports it, said Jennifer Johnson, education issues manager for the CTU.
But Johnson said the Chicago Teachers Union was not informed of the districtwide policy change.
“I think that educators will not respond very positively to it,” she said. “I think their skepticism will be that, ‘Is this a way to bump up graduation numbers?’”
Johnson said there’s no indication that CPS is devoting more resources to help keep students in class.
McDade said she shared the district’s plans with high school principals, but was vague about whether they voiced support.
In addition to removing the attendance requirement in the high school promotion policy, the board will vote to allow immigrant students who have completed core subjects in their native language to be exempt from the World Language requirement. This issue was brought to the attention of the Board of Education by students who said it was too difficult to have to take language classes while they are simultaneously learning English.