4 CPS high schools dramatically inflated student attendance: IG

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Nicholas J. Schuler, inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools. | Sun-Times file photo

Administrators at four Chicago public high schools inflated annual student attendance rates over the last four years by systematically falsifying daily attendance records, making it appear as if dramatically more students attended class than actually did, according to a CPS inspector general report obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The schools engineered the appearance of significantly improved attendance rates,” the inspector general said in the report to be released Thursday.

The schools, on the South and West sides, boosted annual attendance rates by about 10 to 20 percentage points, allegedly through fraud. While the report discovered the fraud for different time periods at the schools, the earliest it found problems was the 2012-2013 school year, the latest 2015-2016.

The report comes as CPS touts record-high 2016 attendance rates, casting doubt on the accuracy of CPS’ data. Attendance growth in recent years has been driven largely by improvements at high schools, particularly at low-performing schools.

Citing the systemic fraud, Inspector General Nicholas Schuler recommends firing two principals: Tyese Sims, former principal at Orr High School and now at Bradwell Elementary, and Trista Harper, Manley High School principal. Neither returned calls for comment.

The report didn’t name schools or staff, but the Sun-Times identified them and confirmed the names with a source close to the investigation. The two other schools are Team Englewood and Marshall. The principals allegedly involved in the fraud at those schools are no longer CPS employees.

Schuler delivered his report on June 30, but CPS has yet to take disciplinary action for current employees. A spokesman said CPS would proceed with discipline, including potential termination, if the allegations are substantiated.

“We are deeply concerned by any reported manipulation of information used to evaluate school performance,” spokesman Michael Passman said.

“Given the number of times we’ve reported on problems with attendance data and transfer data, the office does have broad concerns about the accuracy of the information reported systemwide,” Schuler told the Sun-Times. CPS said it will look closely at the IG’s report to determine if adjustments to district-level data are warranted.

Principals reached by the Sun-Times defended their attendance practices as not only in line with CPS policies but also right for students, saying their strategies helped troubled students make up cut classes so they had a chance to graduate.

Tiffany Brown, a former school official at Marshall and now the principal at Frazier Prep, said in an email that her work has “only been to support the academic success of all CPS students.” She said Marshall followed policies set by network supervisors.

All four schools in the report are struggling and facing pressure to improve. Attendance rates factor into how schools are ranked and principals are evaluated; more kids in school also means greater funding.

Staff at Orr and Manley in interviews with the inspector general’s office specifically cited pressure from network administrators, who oversee groups of schools, to help explain their attendance practices. Manley’s former principal told the IG he launched his attendance program at the direction of his network chief, who is now schools superintendent in Waukegan. She didn’t return calls for comment. Orr is run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which referred questions to CPS.

Schuler’s office recommends penalties for all 20 staffers involved in the alleged fraud.

He wants to ban six administrators no longer working at district schools, including the former Marshall principal and two other former Marshall administrators now at charter schools, CICS-Longwood and Frazier Prep.

Four of them had been dubbed “superstar” principals, each credited with turning around troubled high schools, including Manley and Marshall. In an email, CICS’ CEO said her charter network would “conduct an internal inquiry.” The IG also wants to discipline 11 attendance clerks, some of who complained that so many record changes were required daily that they couldn’t keep up.

The IG describes two alleged schemes at the schools where clerks were constantly overriding teachers who had marked students absent. In one, students who turned up at any point in the day were marked present for the full day. The IG said Orr added four attendance clerks for this work. Attendance jumped from 58 percent to nearly 73 percent in one year.

In another scheme, students who cut one or more classes were allowed to “recover” the time at a single after-school study session, which often was little more than detention, if that. Manley’s “attendance recovery detention” program was first uncovered in a 2015 story by this reporter in The Atlantic magazine, helping prompt the IG’s investigation. The IG found both schemes to be fraudulent.

Former Team Englewood principal Rodney Bly created his attendance recovery program under supervision of his network because 30 percent of students regularly arrived late to first period class. Rather than have them disrupt the class, they waited out the period with supervision. Those students were to make up the missed time in an after-school session. He described this as an imperfect solution to a tough situation in a difficult school — but one that doesn’t warrant his ban from CPS, as the IG recommends.

“Our network went over our attendance practices and at no point did anyone raise a red flag,” Bly told the Sun-Times, noting that attendance during his tenure was roughly equal to what it had been before he arrived. Attendance after he left dropped by 12 percentage points.

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