CMSD summit showcases attendance strategies


The problem is plain, the effects indisputable. Achievement suffers when children miss excessive amounts of time in the classroom.

On Thursday, Cleveland Metropolitan School District convened the Northeast Ohio Chronic Absenteeism Summit, bringing together districts and other agencies to share strategies for dealing with their mutual dilemma. More than 300 people huddled at FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns.

The Cleveland Browns Foundation is the lead partner in the District’s ongoing “Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” attendance campaign. Last school year, the campaign raised average attendance by 1.5 points, to more than 91 percent, and cut chronic absenteeism by 6.3 percent, leaving it at 29 percent.

Ohio defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of the 180-day school year. CMSD’s campaign seeks to prevent students from being absent even 10 days, citing internal data indicating that is a threshold at which students grow more likely to drop out of school and score markedly lower on state reading and math tests.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon speaks at the chronic absenteeism summit.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon speaks at the chronic absenteeism summit.

CMSD is making strides under The Cleveland Plan, a state-approved blueprint for education reform in the city. But Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon said that to make the reforms effective, the District still had to confront “one big problem.”

“Our teachers can never teach a kid who isn’t there,” he said in opening the summit. “In large numbers, kids weren’t there.”

 Chronic absenteeism, which is particularly high in low-income areas, can result from factors such as a lack of transportation and proper health care. Speakers said schools need to track attendance data and get at the reasons why students are absent.

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of the national group Attendance Works, was one of the summit’s headliners.

Chang warned districts not to focus on their daily average attendance, saying a high figure can conceal a rotating corps of kids who are out two or more days per month. She said statistics show that chronic absenteeism spikes in kindergarten, when children are building their academic foundations and again in high school, when struggling students give up.

“We lost them in kindergarten,” she said. “But we never realized we were losing them because we were worried about truancy.”

American Institutes for Research Vice President David Osher said schools need to build relationships with parents and not wait until their children’s absenteeism reaches extreme levels.

“If your only contact with the parent is ‘David’s a problem,’ that’s not a winner,” he said.

A keynote speaker, State Sen. Sandra Williams of Cleveland, backed The Cleveland Plan but insisted it include a requirement that parents have face-to-face contact with teachers at least once a year. Nearly 91 percent of CMSD parents met with a teacher last year.

Williams talked about a new state law that decriminalizes truancy and shifts the emphasis to intervention. She said legislators are working on legislation that would increase the obligation of schools to report and prevent bullying, another reason that children may avoid school.

The summit registration list showed school, social-service and court representatives from as far away as Dayton.

Bruce Chamberlin works with the Parma Area Family Collaborative, an alliance of social workers led by the Parma schools.

Chamberlin said the social workers meet with parents whose children frequently miss school and are developing an academy that will teach parenting skills. He came to FirstEnergy Stadium to collect more strategies.

“We really want to impact absenteeism,” he said. “I want hear other ideas so we can continue to have solid prevention work.”