Politicians, residents speak out about school truancy

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For the past three years, social worker Bessie Tsitsopoulos has made periodic home visits to one of her clients, a 14-year-old special education student on the South Side.

Sometimes, the family allows her to come inside; other times, she’s left standing on the doorstep. But when she is allowed inside, she’s impressed by how “brilliant” the child is; she performs well on standardized tests, Tsitsopoulos said, despite a host of emotional and behavioral problems.

Still, the girl consistently misses 50 to 60 school days per year, and Tsitsopoulos says she has had little success getting state agencies to intervene.

“Could you imagine what this child could achieve if she were in school every day?” Tsitsopoulos asked a panel of public officials and community activists at a truancy task force meeting Feb. 2 at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St.

State Reps. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) and Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) called the meeting after a Chicago Tribune report found last November that nearly 32,000 K-8 students in Chicago Public Schools — roughly one in eight — missed more than four weeks of classes during the 2010-11 school year.

Among African-American students, truancy rates are especially high, the report found. More than 20 percent of African-American K-8 students missed more than four weeks of classes, compared with 6.7 percent of whites and 8.3 percent of Hispanics. Children with emotional disorders had the highest truancy rates, with 42.2 percent missing four weeks of school or more.

Chicago Public Schools employed a force of 150 truancy officers until 1992, when the positions were discontinued because of budget concerns. Several meeting attendees called on the schools to bring them back.

“When you have truancy (officers) in the school, you have people going and checking (on the students),” said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). “If no one tells me I’m doing anything wrong, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s the same for a child.”

Failing to spend money on truancy officers’ salaries could actually cost the school district money, noted Ald. Jason Ervin (28th). Since federal and state allocations are granted based on the number of students attending a school, he said, getting more kids in classrooms could translate to more school dollars.

“We need to start thinking about this in a more productive, better manner,” Ervin said. “We’re tripping over dollars to pick up nickels.”

Other attendees — who represented non-profit organizations including Citizens for a Better Westside, Austin Coming Together and Operation 24 — called on bigger-picture changes to Chicago schools, including an elected school board, increased volunteerism by residents and good nutrition for kids.

Windy Pearson of the West Side branch of the NAACP made a push for bringing back school support services like nurses and school psychologists, who can find out about problems at home and halt them before they lead to truancy. Those interventions, she said, “will prevent the pipeline that is leading children to the street and then to jail.”

Ongoing plans to shutter Chicago’s under-enrolled schools exacerbates the truancy problem, argued Chicago Teachers Union representative Stacy Davis Gates.

“We’re dealing with truancy issues, yet we’re closing neighborhood schools that students are able to cross the street and attend,” said Gates. “We’re making it difficult for kids to attend school. These things are connected.”

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