Chicago School Policy Forum Series addresses indicators that influence student success in Chicago Public Schools

This morning, the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and Catalyst Chicago Magazine hosted their first forum of their 2014 Chicago School Policy Forum Series at the Union League Club of Chicago.

The main question the speakers addressed was “What are the indicators that drive increased student academic success and graduation?”  The panel consisted of:

  • Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring director, University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
  • Beshon Smith, manager, Attendance and Truancy Office, Baltimore City Schools
  • Colleen Cicchetti, Community-linked Mental Health Services Program, Lurie Children’s Hospital

Allensworth recognized that many times, social problems like crime, teen pregnancy, and violence are identified as the indicators of whether or not a student will graduate from high school.  Her research, however, challenges schools districts, administrators, teachers, and staff to focus on addressing the coursework—not crime.  She’s found that attendance and grades are key indicators of whether or not a students will graduate.  If students have a B average in 9th grade, the chances of them graduating are high.  When 39% of Chicago Public Schools 9th graders are chronically absent, or 50-55% of 10th-12th grades students are (data presented by Allensworth), graduating becomes less and less possible.

Over the 18 years I’ve been in education, I know this is true.  Chronically absent students fall behind in about 7 classes.  They struggle to figure out how to make that work.  If they don’t have a good relationship—or any relationship—with their teachers, it becomes difficult for them to express why they’re missing class.

I faced the same thing in college.  My last semester, I kept missing my morning physics class, the last science requirement for graduation, because many times I had to work 3rd shift.  My professor grew angry when he saw me doze off in class.  He didn’t know I hadn’t slept.  It wasn’t until the end of the quarter that I took a risk and explained the reason behind my absences.  I made up some work and passed—barely.  I graduated that June.

So when my students are absent a lot, I’ve learned to ask, as the speakers emphasized, why?  Sometimes I carefully, privately bring this up with the student.  Sometimes I reach out to colleagues.  And I’ve learned to not grow angry when I see a student put his head down in class.

Smith, then,  brought up the need for educators and leaders to ask the question: What are the universal understandings of youth in schools?

She discussed how, so many times, we need to challenge the misunderstandings and myths of how we view students and families.  Data, she shared, can help us have these conversations.  We will always have high numbers of minority confinement and teen pregnancy, she added.  But then she asked, “So what else do we do?”

Schools alone cannot address all of the issues our students and their families face.  Partnerships with community organizations whose mission it is to address these social ills are.  And she shared how this is happening, with funding from the mayor, in Baltimore.

Cicchetti, then, discussed that when these partnerships happen, the partners have to come into a school ready to “talk the language that’s going to help students be successful in the things [teachers and schools] are being evaluated on.”

This truth resounded with me.  The other day, a support staff member came into my room in the middle of a whole-class lesson with 32 students to see if he could talk to a chronically absent student who was finally in class that day.  He interrupted me, messed with the groove we were in with only 10 minutes left in the period.  “No,” I said. “We’re in the middle of something.  See her when the bell rings.”  And I turned my back.

He wanted to speak with a brilliant student whose social-emotional struggles can be addressed if she completed the assignment in class that day because I could enter—finally—some grades to move her closer to a passing grade.  In my mind, keeping her in class was  the best decision for that student.

I had seen this support staff member in meetings, but he never explained to me before that he was helping this student.  He caught me off guard at an inopportune moment.  He still hasn’t had a conversation with me about the student so I can share what I’m doing to help her.  It’s been over a week.

A colleague, who is also a  friend, and I recently had an altercation because I did not ask clarifying questions about the student-support services she is leading.  Within in about 20 minutes, our professional relationship and friendship was severely damaged.  However, thanks to other colleagues who facilitated a conversation between us, we understand each other’s work clearly now.

What I took away from this morning’s panel is that relationships are key—key for students and for everyone trying to help those students.

Those relationships, I’ll argue, can be built, strengthened, or repaired if schools—and districts—follow Allensworth’s suggestions:

1. Use data to focus on the pressing problems in the school.

Too often, I’m frustrated by conversations that are huge red flags to school or area leaders but tiny blips on my teacher radar.  I wonder: if we looked at data from a student lens, would administrators and teachers be better able to identify and address the school’s pressing problems?

2. Match the right kids with the right kinds of interventions.

Too often, I see how schools and leaders identify one intervention, making up missed work after school (for example) as the most important intervention.  This won’t work, however, when a school has a high number of students who work afterschool.

3. Look at data to find patterns and then be strategic.  Don’t look at one student at a time.

Again, I see over and over how teachers struggle to see and address situations outside of our classrooms, beyond our own students.  If one teacher is struggling with a student and we’re not, we usually think, “That’s not my problem.”  If, instead, we used individual students to help us see how they are examples of bigger issues in a school, we could help more students who are grieving the death of a family member or friend, who are having trouble getting to school, who are fighting depression, who are rebellious, or who are simply feel lost and alone in school.

In order for these changes to happen, teachers, school and district leaders need to do what Cicchetti said—“Make it safe for a teacher to say, ‘I’m struggling.’”

And this is policy that’s easier to carry out than we might think.

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