The Memphis City Schools turned their attention to student attendance this week after the state announced the schools on the 2004 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) list.
Of the 73 Memphis schools listed by the Tennessee Department of Education as not making adequate progress, roughly 23 percent were included solely because of poor student attendance. Sixteen of the schools were classified as "restructuring 2," the category where they could conceivably be taken over by the state or restructured.
"Seven of the 16 schools that went into [restructuring 2] went there only because of attendance," said Superintendent Carol Johnson. "We think we need to try some different strategies."
To help improve attendance, Johnson presented an amendment to the board's attendance policy Monday night that would forgo mandatory suspensions in lieu of family interventions at five of the schools. Under the current policy, students who are truant five, 10, and 15 days receive mandatory suspensions.
Under the pilot program, parents of students at Vance Middle, Fairview Jr. High, Georgian Hills Jr. High, Longview Middle, and Winchester Elementary would receive phone calls or home visits after their children have been absent three, five, and eight days. If, after several interventional steps, the absences still continue, the family would eventually be referred to the attorney general's office. Last year, the district attorney's office began advertising the fact that parents can be sent to jail for their child's truancy.
"It never ever made sense to me that we suspend students who are truant," said board member Sara Lewis after she heard the proposal. Commissioner Deni Hirsh asked that the superintendent encourage the entire staff to use suspensions minimally for absences.
The change comes just four days after the state's Department of Education released this year's list of schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal NCLB act. Eight schools on last year's high-priority list were honored by the state for improving significantly and getting off the list. Last year, 148 of the district schools were listed. This year, that number has dropped to 73. But 37 of those schools missed benchmarks in just one category, and for 17 of those, that category was attendance.
At a press briefing last week, Johnson said that the data "signals to us that this is a shared responsibility. We think parents have to step up to the plate and take responsibility for their share of the work."
MCS had six schools on this year's target list, the designation for schools that will be considered high priority next year if they don't improve. Those included Messick Adult Education Center and Shrine School, which serves severely physically disabled students. Of the other four, three were "targeted" because of, yes, attendance.
Bill White, the system's executive director of research, evaluation, and assessment, said MCS plans to appeal the listing of Messick and Shrine, but he's not sure they'll both be removed.
Like other schools, Shrine is listed for attendance. But district officials say it's hard to expect those students -- simply because of medical reasons -- to be able to meet the state's 93 percent attendance rate.
"If they follow it to the letter of the law, there are no excuses," said White. "It's a common-sense appeal, but I just don't know."
White points out that every school has made improvements, but if there is one area they didn't fix, the school stays listed.
"All schools are keenly aware that to get off the list, attendance is a huge factor," said Johnson. Sometimes parents don't know their student is absent. We're going to have to be more aggressive in letting them know." n