Officials on all sides of the city’s truancy issue agree that Metro’s new attendance center is a promising one but needs accurate attendance data from Metro Nashville Public Schools before it can most effectively ramp up to the next level.
To date, the new center — an initiative of the mayor’s office — has served 54 students since opening its doors at the start of this school year. Those kids all were picked up for daytime loitering, having been found outside of their homes or schools during academic hours.
Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas turned heads earlier this week, when he publicly told school board members that attendance data is a problem. But the district had identified, and began working on, attendance-related problems over a year ago, officials said.
The next stage of the attendance center will involve more proactively reaching out to kids who have either been found truant, or who likely are on their way to becoming truancy cases. An efficient move to this next stage will be greatly added by more consistently accurate attendance data, some officials say.
“I think we just want to make sure that we’re getting the bang for our buck,” Juvenile Court Referee Michael O’Neil said. “If we know there are kids out there that are truant from school and we’re not getting to those kids, then that’s obviously an issue that we want to do. … We just want to be sure that we do that in a way that’s effective and fair.”
By law, O’Neill said, the attendance center can access student information starting with two unexcused absences from school. If attendance center staff can’t count on the accuracy of lists of these students — as well as lists of truant students, kids who have missed five or more days of school — difficulties are created in terms of planning staff needs and service delivery.
The unique position of the center, O’Neill said, brings into the spotlight any flaws in district attendance data, and serves as a kind of “quality control for the schools.”
“Before you can really start to hold people’s feet to the fire, you have to have good record-keeping,” O’Neill said. “The school system has a lot of irons in the fire. … It’s hard, and I don’t want it to sound like anyone thinks the school system is sitting around, twiddling their thumbs.”
Need for better data identified
Chief Serpas’ very public statement included reference to a “deep concern” about the “ability and commitment” of the district to be proactive in addressing truancy issues.
Gaps in district attendance data have been identified for more than a year, and school district officials say they’ve been aggressively fighting the problem for at least that long. Serpas told reporters on Tuesday that the Metro Police Department has “raised heck” with the school district over this matter since the beginning of the last school year.
Serpas said he doesn’t understand how the district cannot have accurate information about whether or not kids have been in school. District officials say the problem is complex, and not strictly tied to any breach of duty on the part of teachers and school administrators.
Ralph Thompson, Metro’s assistant superintendent for student affairs, said the district has in recent years made big progress in tracking truancy, though the current school year started “a little slower than anticipated” in terms of attendance tracking.
One problem area school district officials have wrestled with is technology.
Since the 2004-05 school year, attendance at Nashville public schools has been taken by teachers using an automated computer system, part of the district’s Chancery student management software system. Teachers are asked to take attendance at the beginning of each day, and in schools for older students where multiple class periods are part of the day, at the start of each class.
The trouble, in terms of student truancy cases, can come when teachers — or substitute teachers — either neglect to or improperly take attendance at the start of a midday class period.
If attendance for a single period is not taken, the Chancery system automatically defaults to recording every student as present in class. And later, if MNPS should have cause to turn the absence into a truancy case, proving a student’s absence can be a problem if the attendance data is inconsistent. A student who is absent all day except, for example, fifth period, is not automatically considered absent.
Other variables — including school assemblies and student visits to school nurses can create problems as well, according to Thompson.
There has been some community speculation that teachers may be less enthusiastic about taking attendance due to pressure from federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) laws to improve attendance levels.
Rachel Woods, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, said schools for students in grades kindergarten through eight are graded by NCLB for attendance levels. She said she hasn’t heard of any DOE officials highlighting troubles with incorrect attendance data gathering or with problems caused by the data.
“From our perspective, if the kids are not really in the classroom …it’s going to show up in the test scores,” Woods said.
State and federal funding levels for schools are set according to enrollment information, rather than attendance data, Woods said, and enrollment figures are therefore more likely to be highly scrutinized by the DOE.
Attendance Center brings light to data issues
The Metro Student Attendance Center was quickly launched over the summer, after a need for the center was identified at a mayor’s office event that focused on truancy.
The facility is funded following an addition of $500,000 to the Juvenile Court’s budget for center operation.
One of the challenges to addressing truancy is that it involves three government entities — MNPS, Juvenile Court, and Metro Police — as well as community organizations and social service groups. The truancy center concept is intended to formalize interactions among all these players into a legal protocol that can be followed on a case-by-case basis.
Under Tennessee state law, a student is considered truant after five days of unexcused absences. In the 2006-07 school year, more than 25,000 Nashville students were considered truancy cases, according to MNPS attendance data.
Bob Ross, director of intake, parentage and family services for Davidson County Juvenile Courts, said MNPS attendance data hasn’t created problems for M-SAC at this point, as the center remains focused on students found loitering during school hours.
Trouble could be caused in the future, though, as the center ramps up to take on more cases. Officials are looking at several ways of expanding the role the attendance center can play, including reaching out proactively to kids with high numbers of unexcused absences and targeting some schools at which they can meet with families as an alternative to court dates.
“We’d like to kind of master one thing at a time,” Ross said.