(MCT) — Gov. Pat Quinn, state lawmakers and Chicago officials on Monday moved emphatically to address a crisis in elementary-age truancy in city schools exposed by a recent Chicago Tribune investigation.
State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, who chairs the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, began assembling a task force that would include top state and city officials to weigh changes in state laws and other reforms aimed at reversing the crippling pattern of absenteeism in kindergarten through eighth grade.
"Kids are dying on the streets because they are not at their desks reading and writing," she said.
Quinn said he is eager to work with Chapa LaVia and other leaders on the task force.
"Students cannot learn and be prepared for the 21st-century workforce if they are not in school," he said in a statement released by his office.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she has a team working "aggressively" on solutions.
"I want to know the data so we can move forward, so we can have a conversation with our board and the mayor and roll out the plan in terms of what we intend to do to reduce the truancy, increase attendance and to not lose our children," Byrd-Bennett said Monday.
The Tribune investigation found that nearly 32,000 Chicago K-8 students — or roughly 1 in 8 — missed four weeks or more of class during the 2010-11 year, as the cash-strapped district does little to stem the problem. For Chicago Public Schools, the empty desks undermine efforts to boost achievement and cost the district millions in attendance-based funding, the Tribune found. For children born into poverty, the flood of missed days threatens to swallow any hope for a better life.
The absenteeism in the elementary grades is especially acute in African-American communities on the South and West sides scarred by gang violence, unemployment and poverty. Counting truancy, excused absences and gaps in enrollment, more than 20 percent of black elementary school students missed at least four weeks of school in 2010-11, compared with 7 percent of whites and 8 percent of Hispanics.
Children with a learning or emotional disability also miss class in disproportionate numbers, despite federal laws designed to keep such students in school. About 42 percent of K-8 students with an emotional disability missed four weeks of classes in 2010-11, compared with 12 percent of students without a disability.
"Statistics like that are obviously unacceptable. This is an issue that should be tackled," said Beth Swanson, the mayor's deputy chief of staff for education.
In its series, the Tribune found instances when investigators from the state Department of Children and Family Services learned that children were not attending school but failed to notify local school districts as required by state law.
On Monday, DCFS spokesman Dave Clarkin said his agency is reviewing and revising procedures to ensure that DCFS caseworkers notify school districts when they learn that a child is missing school.
Contending with huge budget shortfalls and frequent churning of top administrators, CPS has abandoned numerous strategies for combating K-8 truancy during the past two decades, the Tribune found.
Chapa LaVia said she hoped the proposed task force could serve as a forum for various government agencies to assist CPS and also bring together business and religious leaders, parents and children themselves.
Chapa LaVia said she intends to introduce legislation to formally establish the task force as early as the veto session that begins Nov. 27 and continues through Dec. 6.
Byrd-Bennett said she welcomed the task force and would designate a top aide to represent her.
State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Sycamore, said he would work across the aisle to assist in much-needed reforms.
"I'm sick because we're not helping kids. We're just perpetuating the cycle of failure," Pritchard said.
One example of a state law that needs scrutiny, Chapa LaVia said, is the statute that makes school compulsory at age 7, when youngsters typically enter second grade, instead of age 5, when most states require children to start school.
During the 2010-11 school year, 19 percent of kindergartners were officially listed as chronic truants because they racked up nine or more days of unexcused absences, the newspaper's analysis found.
The series also detailed how girls are kept home to care for younger siblings and unsupervised boys all but live on the street. Many students lost weeks or months of class time as their families struggled with housing and financial issues.