RCSD: Longer days for an out-of-school culture?


More than a year ago, Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas launched a major campaign to improve abysmally low student attendance in the city school district. Now teachers are in the hot seat. Vargas has sent an email to teachers saying that 730 of them were absent last Friday, and he he's concerned that teacher absenteeism is on the rise.

Vargas’s email is creating waves. Critics of the district wasted no time sending out their own sharp assessments of the situation. Parent and charter school advocate Carrie Remis issued a statement seeking an examination of teacher contracts, which provide teachers with “considerable time out of the classroom.” And she recommends including attendance as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski sent his own email to teachers to clarify that many teachers were not in their classrooms because they had been reassigned to administer and score tests. Others were on field trips or in professional development classes, all legitimate reasons, Urbanski wrote. The other absences were not due to playing hooky, as some have suggested, but the result of sickness, family emergencies, and scheduled personal days, according to Urbanski.

While it may be true that teacher absenteeism can adversely impact student learning as a report by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress suggests, there’s more here than meets the eye.

Last week, Vargas was immersed in a program that shows every school’s attendance data in real time. The color-coded information ranges from green, which indicates excellent attendance, to a cautionary yellow, to red — which indicates excessive absenteeism. He can drill down in the data to examine records of every student.

For many city schools, large red blocks are the norm. Despite an all-out effort to improve student attendance, Vargas said that nearly 13,000 city students have been absent for at least two weeks this school year. More than 8, 500 have been absent at least three weeks, and more than 5,700 have been absent at least 20 days. One group of students, though fewer than 50, hasn't attended school at all this year.

Vargas has for the most part solved the record-keeping problem with attendance, but now what? It's a bit ironic that much of the district's plan for improving student achievement involves longer days.

Clearly, there is a serious attendance problem in city schools at every level of the organization. What is less clear is why and what to do about it.