AFFAIRS YORK GITY FOR CENTER NEW Tffi ilEW $HilSI. NY 6th 72 FifthAvcnuc, Fl Nov Yorl<, l00l l f 21 t 21.2.)29.5418 2.229.5335 nycaflairs nrvl,.rni lano. nervschool.cdu/ TESTIMONY OF KIM NAUER. CENTER FOR NEW YORK CITY AFFAIRS NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL JOINT OVERSIGHT HEARING: COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION AND COMMITTEE ON GENERAL WELFARE "CHRONIC ABSENTEEISMIN NEW YORK CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS" WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2OO8 I'm Kim Nauer, Education Project Director for the Center for New York City Affairs, a think tank basedat The New School focusedon advancinginnovativepublic policies that strengthen neighborhoods, supportfamilies and reduceurbanpoverty.We publishedthe report "Strengthening Families" being discussed heretoday, which reveals Schoolsby Strengthening alarminglevelsof chronic absenteeism the early grades. thank the City Council for its in I attentionto the report and am happy to take any questionsyou have. Analyzing data from the Departmentof Education,we found that a total of 90,000children,or one in every five elementaryschool students, chronically absentin New York City. That is number is as high as one in every three studentsin someneighborhoods.We found that there were many different reasonsunderlying chronic absenteeism, ranging from issuesof poverty, foul ups and cultural issues. We also looked healthcareand inadequate housingto bureaucratic at the impact of chronic absenteeism achievement. on Somestudieshave found that attendance problems in the early gradesare a clear, early waming sign that a child is likely to drop out of ,rhooTlut* on. Finally, our report exploresways in which schoolscan work more closely with families, It community-basedorganizationsand other governmentagenciesto reduce chronic absenteeism. is critical that we all work togetheron this. If children aren't in school,they cannotleam - and, for thosechildren,all of the other efforts of the schoolsystemare for naught. Today, I want to focus on one of the report's most important conclusions:That the Department of Education can fix this problem with the help of talented,committed principals and with reneweddedication to working with families and collaborating with community organizations and other institutions. Principals will certainly need help from the DOE and from City Hall . Reducing chronic absenteeism be a huge challenge,particularly in the high poverty neighborhoodswhere the can problem is most severe. But elementaryschoolabsenteeism presents opportunity. also an Principals can use existing tracking systemsto quickly spot families who, for whatever reasons, arehaving problemsgetting their kids to school.With properplanning and modesrresources, schoolleaders can determinethe reasons behindtheir school'sabsenteeism problem,reachout to parentsand steerthem to help when they need it. This kind of outreachcan make a dramatic. early differencein children's lives and their long-termeducational success. Conversely, doing nothing,we risk that thesechronicallyabsentyoungsters by will fall behind, jeopardizing their educationalcareers- and ultimately costing the system far more in remedial education dollarsand last-chance programsdesigned keepkids from droppingout. to So how do we help principals overcomechronic absenteeism their schools? in We talkedto dozensof peoplethroughoutthe school system,including the principal of P,S. 55, a schoolthat was onceconsidered one of the worst in the SouthBronx. Today, he has one of the best attendance recordsin his neighborhood, one that could rival suburban schools.We leamedthat the solutioncomesdown to threethings: o Making attendancea PRIORITY. o_ Devising a smart PLAN to deal with it. o And employing PARTNERSHIPS to tackle the toughestproblems. First, it is critical that top administratorsat the Departmentof Education actively require schools with high chronic absenteeism do somethingabout the problem. Both the DOE and the to principalsthemselves needto make this issuea priority. For now, the effort can be targeted. Our reportidentified 123 elementaryschoolswhere at least30 percentof the children were chronically absent. Second,eachtargetedschool must develop a plgn, tailored to particular challengesof the families in the school.I visited a clusterof schoolsin the Morrisania sectionof the SouthBronx. problem was, despitethe fact that the I was astoundedat how different each school's attendance schoolswere often only blocks apart from each other. Typically, schoolshave three or four major challengesthat drive up absenteeism. They range from health problems like asthma,to cultural challengesfound in new immigrant communities,to bureaucraticproblems brought on by poor busing servicesor a homelesssheltersystemthat inexplicablykeepsmoving families around.Families do often need coaching on the importanceof elementaryeducation.And school leadersmay find they need to improve their own offerings, making the building a destinationthat children will seekout, no matter what. Whatever the reasons,principals must do the detective work to find what is happening.It is only then that they can hope to smartly attack the problem. Third, principals need help. The family issuesthat drive absenteeism often complicated and are can require more effort than any school can offer. At the sametime, New York City is home to many well-respectednon-proff orgarizations that already serve children and families. It makes senseto createmore high-level partnershipswith thesegroups to offer the help that school personnelcannot. The principal of P.S. 55 partneredwith the Montefiore Medical Centerto dramaticallyreducethe number of absences had due to asthma.Groupslike the Children's he Aid Society,Good Shepherd Servicesand Harlem Children'sZone canbring in yearsof schoollocal playersout there basedsocialserviceexpertise. And there are scoresof other specialized with the potential to help. We lgow that this is a lot to ask of principals who are already dealing with enormouspressures. In an ideal world, theseprincipals could focus on academics rely on a well-trained, and partnerto managethe socialneedsof a school.These"community school executive-level leaders"could work to drive down chronic absenteeism and improve student supportsat the crutchesoften usedto school.This personcould also steerthe schoolaway from expensive ambulance managestudentbehavior -- like reflexive specialeducationreferrals, unnecessary calls and prematurecalls to the statechild abuseand neglect hotline. Such a position, whether funded by the DOE or outside community partners,could easily pay for itself in costs savedto other systemsthat serve families in theseschools. We are asking the Department of Education and the City Council to collaboratewith us and other organizations develop an initiative to target a few clustersof schoolsthat have high ratesof to chronic absenteeism and other poverty-relatedchallenges.In this time of fiscal austerity,we needto test new ideas that have the potential to savemoney, strengthenfamilies -- and keep more studentsin school. We think this is an idea with great potential. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I would be happy to answerany questionsyou might have. For More Information Contact: Andrew White, ExecutiveDirector, WhiteA@newschool.edu edu Kim Nauer, Education Proj ect Director, NauerK@newschool. A PDF of the report is availableat www.centernyc.org. Pleasecontactthe Center for New York City Affairs for a print copy of the report.