How one Philly high school reveals the district’s dire attendance problems
Philadelphia has a system for tracking student attendance that the public can’t see. It reveals how many students never go to class.
Each morning, when students arrive at Thomas A. Edison High School in North Philadelphia, they pass through a metal detector and then swipe their school-issued identification cards at a kiosk to record themselves as present.
It’s one way Philadelphia’s middle and high schools track student attendance. The district tallies the card swipes and uses them to determine a school’s official attendance record. Federal officials use the data to calculate school funding.
But the district has a more precise way to track attendance. Teachers record roll every period. These records reveal how many Edison students don’t go to class. Instead they hang out with friends in secluded stairways and corridors or simply walk the halls or leave campus.
The Inquirer examined a representative sample of attendance records from Edison and found huge disparities between the two systems. Card swipes for 22 students recorded from October to April last school year show they attended 75% of the time. When accounting for those actually in class, however, the rate drops by more than half, to 36%, the classroom attendance records show.
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Rosy data based on card swipes have been touted by district officials as evidence of their success boosting attendance, even at low-performing schools like Edison. Meanwhile, the daily logs created by teachers are hidden from the public.
Ten Edison teachers interviewed over the summer said they feel discouraged by the school’s persistent attendance problem, which is well-known within their ranks. Some of them said teachers who complained last school year at a staff meeting about kids cutting their classes were rebuffed by longtime principal Awilda Ortiz, who told them getting students swiped into the building should be the priority.
Ortiz declined to be interviewed for this story.
Educators at John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia said the same problem exists at their school.
“Administrators don’t care. And the district isn’t interested in cracking down on it,” teacher Jules Tonkinson said about the large numbers of students who swipe in and cut class each day at Bartram. He taught there for more than two decades before transferring to William L. Sayre High School at the start of this school year.
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Seeking a full picture on class-cutting across the district, The Inquirer filed a Right-to-Know request for classroom attendance data for all Philadelphia schools. The district rejected it, but the newspaper appealed, and the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled recently that the district must produce the data, which will not have student names, by early next month.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. recently touted the district’s success boosting attendance, calling it the result of “a strategic effort of all schools and all staff members around making sure that children are in school every day.”
Edison teacher Robin Lowry compared Hite’s boast about reducing truancy to the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
“Graduation rates are up. Attendance is up,” said Lowry, who has taught physical education in the district for 25 years. “But we’ve lowered the standards.”
Attendance records reviewed by The Inquirer show one senior was marked present more than 90% of the time despite going to class only 50% of the time. And a freshman who swiped in nearly 100 days stayed for the full school day only 12 times.
The contradiction between Edison’s official attendance rate and students’ actual presence in the classroom could jeopardize its slice of the $213 million Philadelphia receives annually from the federal government for needy students. The funding is based partly on attendance, which the government expects to reflect time spent learning, a U.S. Department of Education staffer said.
District officials declined to be interviewed about The Inquirer’s findings, which were provided to them on Sept. 13.
In an email, spokesperson Megan Lello acknowledged that the district uses two systems to track attendance and said the information they gather is “married at the end of the day.” She would not explain what that means or how the process works. Without providing specifics, Lello said the attendance data the district shares with the public do get audited and adhere to state requirements.
Truancy can bring services
Edison High School is situated between a graveyard and an animal shelter on Luzerne Street, east of Hunting Park, a North Philadelphia neighborhood of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and African American families where decorative ironwork adorns many front porches.
The school, which was all-male through the late 1970s, saw 64 graduates killed in the Vietnam War, more than any other U.S. high school. Today, all of its 1,057 students are considered economically disadvantaged. One-third require special-education services and one-third are learning English as a second language. Some students live in foster homes located more than an hour away by bus.
In theory, neighborhood high schools like Edison can be launchpads to a better life for their students. But when teens routinely cut classes without the district interceding, they often end up getting passed from grade to grade and even graduating without the skills needed to be successful.
Districts that fail to drill down into classroom-level attendance data are missing a chance to use the information to identify problems that students may be reluctant to speak up about, such as lack of family support, said Michael Gottfried, an education-policy professor at the University of California Santa Barbara.
“Going to school is important — it’s boot camp for life,” Gottfried said. “You have to go to school every day just like you have to go to work every day.”
Edison student Ruth De León said she regularly cut her afternoon classes last year when she was a junior because she felt overwhelmed by her responsibilities at home. Every morning, she would dress her young cousins and take them to school. Every evening, she would cook for them and get them ready for bed. There was little time left for much else.
The 17-year-old, who moved to Philadelphia from the Dominican Republic a decade ago, said she felt so sleep-deprived and anxious last year that some classmates wondered whether she might have been on drugs. She was living with an older sister at the time, and being away from her mother only intensified her stress, she said.
Lello, the district spokesperson, in a statement touted the city’s success reducing truancy by pairing schools with attendance coaches and caseworkers. It noted the district is working with Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to seek feedback from schools about how to reduce truancy even further.
De León didn’t benefit from any of that support.
By swiping her ID card when she arrived at school, she avoided being flagged by the district for truancy, which can result in penalties for parents. But being tagged as a truant also triggers the sorts of services Lello described, which are supposedly designed to help students address the problem.
De León said her teachers never confronted her about why she disappeared every day.
“Maybe I would have felt better if someone would have at least cared,” De León said.
‘List does not include class cuts’
The Edison staff handbook outlines strict attendance policies that all teachers are supposed to follow:
Take attendance at the beginning of each period. Students may not leave class during the first and last 10 minutes of instruction. Bathroom use during lessons is restricted. And students who do leave must carry bright-colored hall passes.
Edison teachers and students say those rules are rarely enforced.
Last spring, teachers there received an email that made it clear swipes at the kiosk are what really count. Attached was a document showing attendance rates for each Edison student between October 2018 and April 2019.
A student who swiped in every day “will have 100% attendance,” the email noted. “This list does not include class cuts.”
State law requires all Pennsylvania students to engage each school year in a certain amount of instruction, defined broadly as anything from time spent in class to an appointment with a guidance counselor to a fire drill.
Rick Levis, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said if the state became aware of a school system blatantly ignoring its responsibility to enforce compulsory attendance requirements, it could ask the Auditor General’s Office or a private firm to review the matter.
He wouldn’t say whether the department will take action in response to The Inquirer’s reporting.
Edison teachers say the school’s lax attendance policies also affect grading.
Students who swipe in but rarely attend class may request makeup work. Half a dozen assignments completed on the last day of the marking period could be all that’s needed to lift a student’s grade from 50%, the lowest possible score allowed by the district, to 60%, the minimum required to pass.
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The high school’s academic achievement score, which is based on state standardized test results, has been stuck at 0% for the last three years, meaning Edison has repeatedly failed to meet the district’s minimum standard for performance on the test. Its climate score, which takes into account swipe attendance, suspensions, and other factors, was not much better — 7%, 12%, and 9% over the last three years.
Edison graduate Agnel Ingalls said his time there nearly derailed his plans for college. He transferred to Edison after two years at Neshaminy High School and said he was stunned by the low standards and broad acceptance of cutting classes.
During his junior year, Ingalls said, his English teacher was out sick for three months, and attendance in class plummeted.
“We didn’t have a steady substitute. It was different people every day. And as long as I turned in the worksheets, I got an A,” said Ingalls, now 24. “As a student, why would you want to come to school when it feels like the adults have given up on you?”
Invasion of the hall walkers
Last school year, Edison teacher Lowry said she was often asked to help clear the halls.
“Kids just aren’t going. They’re not going to class,” Lowry said. She estimated that dozens of students each day roam the third floor alone.
Edison teachers say the school’s hall-walking problem is so severe because its root causes have not been addressed. Teacher turnover is chronic, vacancies go unfilled for months, and staff hired to patrol the halls are stretched thin. Meanwhile, some teachers say the principal blames them for not forging stronger relationships with their students.
“Our kids have so many unmet needs,” she added.
Lowry’s classes are well-attended because gym is popular. But students are far less willing to show up for courses like chemistry and algebra when they’re led day after day by substitutes or inexperienced teachers new to the school, she said.
An Inquirer analysis shows that Edison’s teacher turnover rate is among the district’s highest.
Experts say a stable teaching staff is crucial to a school’s academic success and turnover of 25% in one year is cause for alarm. Edison has exceeded that threshold three times in the last six years. More than a third of last year’s teachers did not return.
The school also leads the district in teacher vacancies. Two school years ago, for example, Edison students returned from winter break to a high school missing one science teacher, two English teachers, and three special educators. Edison didn’t fill those slots until after school let out for the summer, district records show.
As a result, Edison must rely heavily on substitute teachers.
Last school year, Edison hired five times as many subs as Academy at Palumbo, a high-performing Queen Village magnet school with comparable enrollment and better attendance, and nearly twice as many as Fels, another neighborhood high school. On average, nine subs worked at Edison every day last school year, district records show.
Longtime English teacher Sydney Coffin said Edison’s staffing woes put undue stress on the teachers who stick around and also lead to a shortage of caring adults — the people he considers the school’s best antidote to hall-walking.
“We have so many teachers who call out or quit midyear,” Coffin said. “Their students have no leader, and those students start to think: ‘Why the hell would I go to class? That sub won’t know me and won’t have control. I’m better off in the hall.’ ”
Teachers say students who cut class often gather in the stairwells or in the auditorium, which is situated across from the main office. By lunch time, the smell of marijuana wafts from school bathrooms into the hallways.
Sometimes, the chaos spills from the halls back into Edison’s classrooms.
English teacher Danika Nieves said her classroom door had a broken lock that allowed hall walkers to enter her room and disrupt her lessons. Several times a week, they would come to greet friends or to coax Nieves’ students to leave class, too. The interruptions made it tough for the young teacher — one of 16 at Edison last school year who were new to the district — to find her footing.
“I wanted to stay long term, and now I’m part of teacher churn,” said Nieves, who left for Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School. “I feel guilty.”
Just weeks into the new school year, the hall-walking problem at Edison persists.
Some students are cutting class because the school’s air-conditioning is broken and classrooms are stifling on hot days, senior Kayla Hawkins said. Her mother called the district to complain but hasn’t gotten a response, she added.
“No one wants to sit in class when it’s so damn hot,” Hawkins said as she waited at a busy North Philadelphia intersection to catch the 57 bus home.
De León, now a senior, said she plans to attend class regularly this year because she wants to graduate. She’s living with her mother now and doesn’t have to spend as much time outside of school caring for her cousins.
Sitting in a corner booth at McDonald’s on Lehigh Avenue, waiting for her mother to finish work, De León described how she prayed over the summer for relief that would help her become a better student — one who doesn’t cut class and walk the halls.
“I asked God to help me because I didn’t want to be in that situation anymore.”
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