“Until we have students physically in school it doesn’t matter the strategies that we have because they can’t benefit from them,” she said. “Whatever strategies teachers employ won’t work with 30 percent of the population because they are not there.”
The problem is most pronounced at the highest and lowest grade levels. Of DPS’ six high schools, only Ponitz Career Technology Center and Stivers High School have chronic absentee levels below 40 percent.
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The district this year launched an ad campaign aimed at enrollment and robocalls to parents to encourage them to get kids to school. Lolli announced plans to launch a community engagement effort similar to what’s been done in Cleveland, which included yard signs, knocking on doors and incentives for students and parents.
Board member Sheila Taylor expressed frustration that they didn’t already have in place a “real clear-cut, hands-on strategy.”
“Are we going out, knocking on doors … to find out what problems (families) are having and why their children aren’t in school?” she said. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal to go out to people’s houses and knock on the door.”
Another measure headed in the wrong direction is performance on math and reading tests. A test in December found students were making gains from the fall on both measures. But from winter last year to winter this year scores in most grades dropped.
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“That is frustrating to me,” said board member Jocelyn Rhynard. “I know that all of us look at these numbers, know we want to do better and feel the frustration and disappointment.”
Burton said the primary driver of this is the absenteeism problem, which not only affects the child who misses school but also the other students when the kid comes back and the teacher has to spend time catching him or her up.
Board member Robert Walker asked where these scores suggest they may end the year.
“We can assume that if we stay on the same trajectory, that our achievement won’t be significantly different. However, we still need to see whether or not we’re going to make growth.” Burton said. “It usually takes a couple years to see the kinds of changes we need to succeed.
“I would recommend we stay the course”
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This includes maintaining increased focus on classroom instruction strategies and professional development for teachers in research-driven teaching methods.
The board also set a goal to decrease suspensions by 1 to 2 percentage points a year with a goal of a five-point reduction by 2021. From August to February, suspensions increased year-over-year in all but two months. In November, they jumped from 346 to 451.
To address this, the district is helping teachers with classroom management and supporting the socio-emotional needs of students, officials said.
DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said while the district is falling short of its goals when averaged districtwide, the picture is different on the school building level.
“This is a districtwide report,” she said. “We have 12 schools with Fs. We have 15 schools that do not have Fs.”
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“Those 15 schools, if you look at their individual reports … you will see improvements in many, many grade levels, you’ll see significant improvements in some of their grade levels.”
Lolli said it’s unclear whether they are making enough progress to avoid state takeover, which will be measured largely by standardized tests that start next Month.
“We’re hopeful that the work we’re doing and the monitoring we’re doing will make a significant difference.”