Report warns of absenteeism at Pittsburgh Public Schools

Superintendent Linda Lane calls for a 'be there' campaign

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Pittsburgh Public Schools has been working toward having a highly effective teacher in every classroom every day.

But what if the students aren't there?

The district is taking a different look at attendance, showing a significant problem with chronic absenteeism by students who miss 10 percent or more of school days -- 18 days in a school year -- counting unexcused and excused absences, including suspensions.

There may have been good reasons for some of the absences, but the students still were missing out on instruction.

The chronic absentee rate for last school year averaged 47 percent in the high schools, 30 percent in the 6-12 schools, 26 percent in the 6-8 schools and 18 percent in K-8 and K-5 schools.

It went as high as 60 percent at Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side and as low as 5 percent at Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5 in East Liberty.

When she saw the new data, school superintendent Linda Lane said, "Frankly, that was like an oh-my-goodness moment."

The chronic absenteeism data were to be released today along with other school-by-school data in the district's first State of the Schools Report.

The report covers 49 of the district's 54 schools. The other schools are special schools and the new Online Academy.

The report will be available on the Web at www.stateofthedistrict.org or via the district's home page at www.pps.k12.pa.us. A printed version will be issued later.

The unconventional calculation of absenteeism -- based on looking at patterns of individual students -- contrasts with the average attendance rate of 91 percent on the district's most recent report card done using the formula for state and federal accountability. The state average is 94 percent.

That number looks more favorable because it averages the patterns of low attenders with the patterns of high attenders.

The superintendent recalled one meeting at which a teacher said, "If we can get them here, we can teach them."

"Especially at our high schools, we are going to have to get very deliberate about that," Ms. Lane said.

The absenteeism rates in the district's four 9-12 high schools are Perry, 60 percent; Carrick, 59 percent; Brashear in Beechview, 45 percent; and Allderdice in Squirrel Hill, 24 percent.

Other schools where more than 35 percent of the students are chronically absent are Milliones 6-12 in the Hill District, 54 percent; Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood, 38 percent; Schiller 6-8 on the North Side, 36 percent; and Woolslair K-5 in Lawrenceville, 37 percent.

The district has made a computer tool available to principals so they can readily see which students have a "severe" attendance problem in the past 20 days or longer periods.

Principals have been encouraged to find methods other than suspensions of dealing with students, including being proactive to prevent misbehavior rather than lowering behavior standards.

So far this school year, nearly 1,100 fewer students have been suspended compared with the same time last year, a 29 percent decrease.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, and Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy organization, both said the problem calls for community action, not just district action.

He added: "It may be nonnegotiable for there to be a locking of elbows around these kids where all of us as a city in unison are singing the same song: Kids, you've got to be in school. Moms and dads, you've got to get your kids to school."

Ms. Harris said it is a "real call to action" for "everyone to get laser-focused on what it's going to take to get kids to school every day."

Ms. Lane agreed a citywide effort is needed. "We need a 'be there' campaign," she said.

The report includes information from city charter schools, where available. Of the four providing data on chronic absenteeism, the range was from 4 percent at Propel Northside to 14 percent at the Urban Pathways Charter School K-5 Downtown.

The State of the Schools Report also includes school-by-school data on achievement, academic growth, graduation rates and eligibility rates for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships as well as perceptions of students, staff and parents.

Ms. Lane said the report provides a "snapshot in time."

"One of the things I've always said about data is it helps you know what questions to ask," she said.

Deputy superintendent Jeannine French said the data are "not meant to be reflective of the totality of what's going on in a school."

The report provides the first school-by-school results for student, staff and parent surveys from 2011-12.

The results for the student and staff surveys were divided into thirds within each of three groups: K-5, K-8 and 6-8, and 6-12 and 9-12.

The report gives a composite for student responses on questions about seven C's: care, control, clarity, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate.

More detail on the results of the categories is to be available at the schools.

The parent surveys, for which most schools had low response rates, were divided into categories based on whether the parent would recommend the school to another family.

Eight schools scored in the top categories in all three surveys: Banksville K-5, Beechwood PreK-5, Dilworth PreK-5, Liberty K-5, Weil PreK-5, Carmalt PreK-8, Greenfield PreK-8, and Science & Technology Academy 6-12.

Two schools were in the bottom group on all three surveys: Faison K-5 in Homewood, where the parent response rate was 33 percent, and Westinghouse 6-12, where the parent response rate was 7 percent.

On academics, Ms. French said noted three schools significantly different from the others: Obama 6-12, Westinghouse 6-12 and Perry 9-12.

Obama has state reading and math test results that put it in the middle range, but it fell into the category of significantly below the state average in the composite score for student growth. It also showed a substantial racial achievement gap.

Westinghouse and Perry had a low composite score for student growth as well as for the reading and math test scores themselves.

Westinghouse had a significant racial gap between the school and the district average for 6-12 schools. Perry had a significant racial achievement gap within the school.

Overall, the growth figures show, said Ms. French, "as a district, we are growing."

Cate Reed, executive director for strategic priorities, said the data help identify successes that can be replicated in other schools.

"The answers lie within our district and our staff," said Ms. French. "It's not going to be some silver bullet. It's already happening in some of our schools."


Correction/Clarification: (Published February 5, 2013) Urban Pathways K-5 Charter School had a chronic absenteeism rate of 14 percent last school year. In a earlier version of this story, that percentage was incorrectly attributed to the Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School, which did not provide data on chronic absenteeism for the Pittsburgh Public Schools' study of absenteeism.
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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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