In Buffalo schools, absenteeism is rampant

Buffalo schools have an epidemic of chronic truancy, and students face few consequences for missing class. How can the district get kids to attend?

In Buffalo schools, absenteeism is rampant

Buffalo schools have an epidemic of chronic truancy, and students face few consequences for missing class. How can the district get kids to attend?

Photography by Robert Kirkham / Buffalo News

The quiet, slender 15-year-old had missed so much school that he earned an unwanted distinction: An attendance teacher was visiting his house this Friday afternoon.

The purpose of Nelis Henderson’s visit: Talk to the teen and his mother to determine why he misses school, offer them resources, and devise a plan to get him to regularly attend Bennett High School.

He tells Henderson it’s just too hard to wake up early enough to get to school.

“It’s not easy,” he says, his arms crossed as he leans against the kitchen counter. “I’m so tired. I’m not saying I do it on purpose. I’m just tired.”

His mother tried just about everything. She took away his phone and other electronics, canceled Christmas, reached out to the school and even worked with Child Protective Services. For a while, she had a family friend come every morning to try to wake her son up. Once a week, a counselor from a local mental health agency visits the house. Nothing seems to help.

Bennett High School attendance teacher Nelis Henderson checks on a truant student. Once she makes contact, Henderson talks to the parents and student and offers a plan to encourage attendance. Last year, almost half of the city’s students missed more than 18 days, nearly an entire month of classes.

Chronic truants like her son abound in the Queen City.

Nearly half of the students in the Buffalo Public Schools last year missed more than 18 days — nearly an entire month of classes.

But even that figure masks the depth of the problem. One out of every six students throughout the district missed more than 20 percent of the school year. The problem is most severe among the city’s high school students; one-third of the students missed at least 20 percent of the school year.

Attendance proves challenging in just about every urban school district, where concentrations of poverty present countless obstacles for students and their families. But in Buffalo far more students miss critical amounts of school than in many other cities, from Baltimore to Los Angeles. One national expert who worked with the district said Buffalo’s absenteeism is among the worst she’s seen.

“In Buffalo high schools, you have a serious issue,” said Hedy Chang, the founder of Attendance Works. “You have a culture of not going to school.”

Reasons why students miss school vary, but many are tied to poverty. Health problems. The need to care for younger siblings. Juggling school with work or parenting. The fear of violence in the neighborhood or at school.

Nobody knows how much each of countless factors affects attendance.

What is clear, though, is where this leads: low graduation rates . Chronic absenteeism more strongly predicts a student’s chances of graduating from high school than test scores or discipline problems, studies have shown. In Buffalo, only about half of high school students graduate, only one in 10 elementary students is considered proficient in English, and only one in six is proficient in math.

The district has taken steps to address chronic absenteeism. District officials reinstated about a dozen attendance teachers. Through Say Yes to Education, the district added a family support specialist in every school. Mental health clinics opened in many schools. Incentives and rewards are offered to motivate students to come to school.

But students know it’s unlikely that anyone in the schools will hold them accountable if they miss classes.

What’s more, some district and state policies appear to almost encourage truancy. In years past, students risked getting detention if they missed school. That no longer happens. And in previous years, they couldn’t sit for Regents exams if they missed more than 28 days. That no longer happens, either.

In addition, teachers are required to give every student quarterly grades above a certain number — regardless of whether students show up or do adequate work. So when students do well early in the school year, many skip the rest of the year and still pass based on the averaging of quarterly grades.

As the 15-year-old’s mother found out, the district possesses few options if a student simply does not want to go to school.

Sitting in the kitchen of the teen’s home near the Cheektowaga border, Henderson offers help in many forms: an alarm clock, a ride to school, after-school tutoring to get caught up in his classes, a program to set him up with a part-time job.

He wants none of it, refusing to sign an agreement saying he will attend school.

“I don’t like that stuff,” the teen tells Henderson, looking at the cellphone in his hand more than he looks at her.

The best that Henderson can get is a verbal agreement that he will come to school every day for two weeks.

“I will work with you,” Henderson tells him. “I will take two weeks, for a start. Can we shake on it?”

He shakes his head.

“No?” she asks. “Just verbal? All right.”

But when Monday comes, he is not in school.

Worse than it seems

The attendance problem in Buffalo is so bad that in some cases, school officials schedule far more students for classes than a room can accommodate.

“I have 44 students in my first period class. I only have 25 desks,” said Marc Bruno, who teaches social studies at Riverside Institute of Technology. “They bank on kids not coming.”

Two years ago, 25 students were assigned to his first-period class. On average, each missed 72 days — more than three and a half months — according to the daily attendance logs that Bruno keeps in a thick three-ring binder.

“I teach Global (History and Geography) 10. I’ve got to teach 10,000 years of world history in eight months,” he said, then points at the stack of absenteeism data he has accumulated over the past couple of years. “If you look at that, how can they possibly be successful?”

You’ve just got to be here to pass — the work’s not that hard.”

Test results underscore his point: Looking at results from 10 Regents exams throughout the district two years ago, two-thirds of students with satisfactory attendance passed an exam, on average — compared to only one-third of students who missed seven weeks or more.

“You’ve just got to be here to pass — the work’s not that hard,” said Destiny Blue, a Bennett senior last year.

And as bad as the attendance numbers are, they do not include the more than 36,000 days of school from which students were suspended last year — about one day for every student in the district, on average. Schools in New York State cannot count suspensions as absences.

But while attendance more strongly predicts a student’s chances of graduating from high school than test scores, suspensions, or just about anything else, urban districts like Buffalo still struggle.

“Poverty is a big indicator of absenteeism,” said Chang, the national expert on attendance. “It creates a lot of barriers to getting to school.”

And for students in poverty, the more school they miss, the harder it is for them to get caught up.

“Low-income families don’t have the skills to help kids make up for the time lost on task or the resources to pay for tutoring,” she said. “If those kids miss too much school, they become disillusioned. They may be in class, but they can’t follow what’s going on. By middle school, they may not even show up because they’re not engaged.”

Sweet talk is only tool

State law requires that children attend school until they reach 16, and Buffalo policy requires that they attend until 17. But there is little the district can do if students don’t show up every day.

“At the end of the day, by not having any consequences, we are dooming these students to a life of poverty,” Bruno said. “This is the only chance they have.”

“We’re trying to create employable people, and our policies are telling them they don’t have to show up,” said John Bihr, a science teacher at Riverside. “We are creating unemployable people.”

Suspending kids for not coming to school is counterproductive, academic sanctions have been watered down and even reporting a family to Child Protective Services has limited utility unless there are more serious problems involved.

And kids know it.

It had been weeks since Riverside staffers met with one 15-year-old who missed a lot of school. He promised to start showing up, but continues to stay home playing video games while his father is at work.

Despite the family’s modest means, the father recently bought the boy an iPad. The father also has been spending more time lately with his girlfriend, with whom he has a new baby.

Now, attendance teacher Ana Rivera is back at the boy’s home, a two-unit house one block from Niagara Street, wondering why he wasn’t in class.

“You went one day. One or two days. And then you didn’t go back,” Rivera presses him.

The boy appears unfazed, listening but not reacting visibly, standing in the foyer of his house, wearing a T-shirt and shorts on a frigid winter day.

After coming to the United States from Burma seven years ago, his father is essentially all the family that the boy has here. Rivera mentions calling CPS and the trouble it could get the father into, but the teen apparently knows the rules.

“Do you understand the trouble you’re getting your father into?” Rivera asks the boy.

“Yeah,” he says.

Rivera tries a different tack.

“Is it fair to Dad that he has to miss work and go downtown and explain to a judge why you don’t go to school? You don’t care. You don’t care much for Dad, do you?”

“Not much,” he says.

“Why don’t you care?” Rivera asks.

“Because I’m a careless person,” he tells her.

A call to CPS is one of the few consequences that anyone can threaten for a chronic truant. Educational neglect — excessive absences, when a parent contributes to the problem or fails to address it — constitutes a reportable offense.

But many school officials are reluctant to call CPS for excessive absences. Unless a child is found to be in physical danger, it is unlikely that the county will take action. In extreme cases, CPS could remove a child and place him in foster care, but that outcome is rare for chronic truants.

“I don’t like making that call unless I feel it’s a lack of parenting,” said Rivera, who estimated she called CPS about 15 times a year. “That’s an invasive thing to do to a parent. They start showing up and looking in your refrigerator.

“And CPS — what can they do? Nothing.”

Rivera lectures the teen about the need to finish his education so that he will be able to get a decent job to support himself in a few years. She asks if she will see him in school on Monday.

If he arrives late, he complains, he will have to sit in the auditorium until the next class period begins.

Rivera makes him an offer: If he comes in late, he can come directly to her office, and she will walk him to his class — no sitting in the auditorium.

“Do you want me to have breakfast on Monday for you?” she asks him.

He doesn’t.

“’Cause I’ll make coffee or tea if you want.”

Counterproductive policy

Buffalo’s current approach to attendance represents a significant shift from a decade or so ago. In fact, ask a veteran teacher what has been the biggest change with regard to attendance in the past 10 years, and the answer will likely be: The district eliminated its 28-day rule.

That change illustrates how much the district’s own policies contribute to the fact that so many students miss so many days of school.

Buffalo used to require high school students to attend at least 85 percent of classes during the year to be eligible to sit for the Regents exam in any given subject — a necessary step for accruing the credits needed to graduate. That meant that any student who missed more than 28 days of a class could not take the exam.

Students knew when they were edging close to 28 absences, teachers say, and they would start showing up again.

Several years ago, though, the state Education Department issued guidance saying students could not be prevented from taking Regents exams, district officials say. So, while the 28-day rule is still on the books, it is no longer enforced.

“You can’t have a policy in which you’re punitive and keeping students from taking Regents exams or getting credit for Regents courses,” said Will Keresztes, district associate superintendent.

That’s not the only policy change that many teachers and administrators question.

Teachers are not allowed to give students in third through sixth grade anything lower than a 70 on their report card in each marking period, under district rules for promoting students to the next grade.

Bennett High School Principal Bert Stevenson, shown with late-arriving students in the school auditorium where they must wait until the next class begins. In an effort to improve attendance, Stevenson places the most at-risk seniors into one of two support homerooms where they are assigned mentors who regularly check on them.

So, although those students need a final average of 75 or higher to advance to the next grade, it’s possible to attain that average just by earning an 80 in the first two marking periods. Then, even if a student rarely comes to school the second half of the year, he or she will still receive a 70 on the report card for that part of the year — and have a high enough average to be promoted.

For students in grades seven to 12, the lowest grade they can get on a report card is a 50 for the first three marking periods, under the same district regulation. Students need a 65 average to pass the course.

“If you have two 80s and two 50s, you’re going to pass that course,” one administrator said. “You’re not going to show up. The kids know this.”

Even the way schools take attendance contributes to — and masks the severity of — the problem. High school late arrivals sign in and are then counted as being present for the day, for record-keeping purposes, even if they arrive at 1 p.m. or later.

Those who arrive late wait in the auditorium until the start of the next class period, a process intended to minimize classroom disruptions. But the system has its shortcomings.

“A lot of kids sign in, go to the auditorium, then walk right back out. We call them ghosts,” said Bihr, the Riverside teacher. “We have four security guards — but 24 doors.”

In addition, a relatively new computerized record-keeping system automatically marks each student as present — unless a teacher takes attendance. Critics say it’s impossible to tell how frequently students are marked as present simply because teachers, for whatever reason, do not take attendance.

Triage for truants

In the Alumni Room at Bennett High School, nine staffers sit around a cluster of tables arranged in a U-shape for the weekly “senior triage” meeting.

They have identified dozens of seniors close to graduating — many just two classes shy of a diploma — but at risk of not making it across the finish line, largely because they miss too much school.

Here, the obstacles to attendance — babies, emotional problems, students living on their own — morph from data points into young faces. Their life stories can overwhelm whatever strategies schools administrators devise to get them into class.

“One reason Bennett students are not graduating is not because they’re not passing the exam, but because they’re not passing the class. They’re not passing the class because they’re not coming to school,” said Bert Stevenson, the principal.

After targeting improved attendance as a key goal, the district has given each school quite a bit of leeway in determining how to accomplish it. Last year at Bennett, the first under Stevenson, the most at-risk seniors were pulled from their assigned homerooms and put into one of two senior support homerooms.

Each student is assigned a mentor on the senior triage team — a teacher, counselor, administrator or other staff member — who is responsible for checking in with them regularly.

At the triage meeting, staff members take turns running through their list of students, detailing the obstacles for those who haven’t been coming to school.

In just a few minutes, it becomes clear how much these students are up against. For many of them, school sinks toward the bottom of their list of priorities, given everything else in their lives demanding attention and energy.

Neil Lange, a longtime special-education teacher, ticks off a list of students who have had perfect attendance the past several days.

And then there is Tynesha.

“I’ve got her mother’s number,” he says. “I’ve been calling. Her mother insists she’ll be here every day.”

Henderson, the attendance teacher, offers to visit the student’s house.

Tynesha, like many seniors at Bennett, is 19 — too old for Child Protective Services to intervene and also past the compulsory age of attendance.

She needs just two credits to graduate.

“Tynesha had a baby and then gave up coming to school,” Lange says.

Next student up for discussion: Quinn. His problems began long before he showed up at Bennett. He ran into difficulties in another district. The school couldn’t handle him, so he was placed in a residential facility and categorized as “E.D.” — emotionally disturbed.

“He’s not actually E.D. He’s an unhappy kid,” social worker Wendell Wild says. “Part of the problem is that people approach him like he has a disability — and he resents it, as he should. What he’s got is a miserable life.”

Quinn had a 97 average in English, but didn’t show up for the exam, Lange said. The sense of frustration in the room is palpable. Staffers compare notes and agree to redouble their efforts to track him down by phone.

The group moves on to discuss Veronica. She, like many other students at Bennett, enrolled in a BOCES program once it became available to students in some of Buffalo’s struggling high schools.

Many, though, are not used to juggling academics with the demands of a vocational program, and want to opt out of BOCES. But if they do, they won’t have enough credits to graduate.

Veronica is living with her boyfriend, like many high school students in Buffalo who no longer live with their parents or guardians.

“The boyfriend goes to South Park,” a staffer says. “He’s not going to school either.”

Counselors’ reports shock Bennett seniors into action

At Bennett High School, 10 weeks into the last school year, slightly fewer than half the seniors

were on track to graduate.

“I said to the counselors, ‘If it was graduation day, who would be graduating?’ We just made a list,” Principal Bert Stevenson recalled. “Students need a clear understanding of where they stand.”

Nearly all students want to graduate. Many of them, though, miss a lot of school; and they don’t seem to understand that the more school they miss, the less likely they are to graduate.

Stevenson decided there was value in spelling that out for them.

The counselors compiled a report for each student that included their attendance, course grades and credits still needed for graduation. Then, they called all the seniors together. About half were told to sit on one side of the room, and half on the other side, based on the data the counselors had pulled together.

“The counselors said 47 percent would graduate,” said Shamar McDuffie, a senior last year.

To students on one side of the cafeteria, the counselors had a great message.

“They said, ‘Class of 2015, great job!’ And we were on the other side,” Shamar said. “I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I was in denial for a minute.”

Destiny Blue, too, found herself among those asked to stand, to signify that they were not on track to graduate.

“I was embarrassed,” she said. “I was just failing one class — college prep.”

When Shamar looked at his report, he saw that he had been late to school for three weeks in a row, missing first period more than a dozen times in a month. He was failing Algebra 2, his first-period class.

Working 20 hours a week at the West Seneca nursing home where his mother is a certified nursing assistant, he often went directly from school to his job, where he would work from 4 to 8 p.m. Then he would go home and face the school work waiting to be done — and wake up at 6:30 a.m. the next day to be up in time to catch the bus for school and start the whole process over again.

“I was just late all the time. I was tired,” he said.

Later in the day, each senior who was not on track to graduate was asked to write a personal plan, addressing the problem areas in his or her individual report and outlining what they had to do differently to get on track to graduate.

Destiny, like Shamar, had been coming in late fairly often. With a baby at home, it was often difficult to leave the house on time. But once she saw her report, she realized she had to do it.

“That made us open our eyes,” Destiny said. “They pointed it out to us. We really had to turn it around.”

— Mary B. Pasciak

In Buffalo, better tracking, but not better attendance

For years, the Buffalo Public Schools and other districts tracked attendance with a single number: average daily attendance, the percentage of students likely to be in school on a given day.

Over the past decade, Buffalo’s daily average fluctuated from 86 to 91 percent — lower than neighboring districts, but hardly a number reflecting a crisis.

But researchers say average daily attendance masks the problem because it fails to account for the fact that, in many cases, it is the same group of students who miss school day after day.

What’s important, experts now say, is identifying students who are chronically absent — those who miss more than 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days out of the 180-day academic calendar. Those are the students most likely to drop out.

A study in Chicago found that among high school freshmen who missed eight or fewer days of school, 87 percent graduated in four years. But among those who missed 20 to 28 days, only 41 percent graduated. And among those missing 40 to 48 days, only 9 percent graduated.

For years, though, there was no way to know how many students in a school were chronically absent. A school could report 90 percent average daily attendance, even though one out of four of its students could be chronically absent, according to an often-cited figure in attendance studies.

Buffalo’s average daily attendance four years ago, for instance, was 87 percent. Though several percentage points lower than in neighboring districts, 87 percent sounds relatively high. But that number masks the variation and the fact that, while many students come to school nearly all the time, many others miss a critical number of days. In fact, more than 42 percent of Buffalo students missed a month or more of school that year.

More than four years ago, Buffalo hired Hedy Chang, the founder of Attendance Works, who helped the district realize the importance of reporting data differently.

Now, in addition to average daily attendance, Buffalo reports every month, for each school: the percentage of students who miss less than 5 percent of the year; those deemed at-risk, who miss 5 to 10 percent of the year; those with chronic absences, meaning they miss 10 to 20 percent of the year; and those who are severely absent and miss more than 20 percent of the year.

Buffalo is among the relatively few school districts across the country to track attendance in this more nuanced way — something experts think indicates a district is more proactive than most.

Still, compared to the other districts that do, Buffalo’s attendance problem remains far worse.

— Mary B. Pasciak