With minimal public input and even less public awareness, the Milwaukee School Board has embarked on a policy shift that will affect not only who gets into which high schools, but could signal a return to increased tracking.
Under a resolution passed last June, the board will allow high schools to give entrance preference to those students who have at least a 90% attendance rate in the first semester of eighth grade. Previously, the board had argued that all students should have an equal shot in getting into their preferred high school, and had resisted attempts to establish preferences based on factors such as a student’s academic, discipline, or attendance record.
Opinions on whether the resolution is a step forward or a step backward depend in large part on whether one believes that high schools should be allowed to screen students and reward those who have demonstrated “responsible behavior.”
For those who have worked to reduce tracking within MPS and to raise opportunities for all students, the resolution was a hard blow.
“What this policy will potentially result in is a two-tiered educational system in high schools in this system, one for the have nots, one for the haves,” Michael Sonnenberg, principal at Pulaski High School, argued at a June 11 public hearing on the resolution. “And this, in my mind, is not what public school education is all about.”
While the resolution focused on high school admission policy, the debate encompassed the issue of attendance. One of the challenges for both supporters and critics of the resolution has become how to channel their mutual concern about attendance and develop a comprehensive plan to address what is a complicated and long-standing problem within MPS.
“We all need some help in terms of finding some solutions to the attendance problem,” Efraín Vila, principal at Sholes Middle School, told Rethinking Schools.
The attendance resolution passed 5-4 MPS Revamps Admissions Policies for High Schools on June 26, following a bitter debate among school board members. Critics were upset that the public hearing was held with little notice, the day before the end of school, and that the resolution itself was passed in mid-summer. The specifics of implementation are still being worked out, and it is expected that parents will be formally notified of the new policy sometime in October, in time for next year. The attendance requirement would then take effect at the time of notification, according to MPS officials.
Milwaukee’s 20 schools offering high school programs may individually decide whether to adopt the attendance preference. Even if all schools adopt the attendance preference, as is expected, it will change the selection process primarily at those schools with a wait list, in particular Rufus King School for the College Bound. This fall King had a wait list of about 500 students, most of them for the incoming freshman class of approximately 350 students.
School board members John Gardner, Joe Fisher, Leon Todd, Lawrence O’Neill and Warren Braun voted in favor of the attendance resolution. Members Mary Bills, Sandra Small, Jared Johnson and Christine Sinicki voted against.
IS SCREENING VALID?
Supporters argued that the board should, as the resolution states, use attendance as a way to evaluate “hard work, effort, and responsible behavior” and to reward students who have shown such traits by giving them the first shot at getting into the high school of their choice. Opponents argued that the board has a responsibility to serve the needs of all students, not just those who are already doing well. They charged that the policy is a thinly veiled attempt to track students and was pushed by those who believe the system’s specialty high schools have the right to screen out what are seen as less desirable students.
Mike Langyel, co-founder of the New School for Community Service within MPS, said that the attendance requirement is in line with those who believe the best way to save the public schools is to cater to the demands of the middle class, whether Black or white. The attendance requirement “follows an interesting trend, a sort of compact with the middle class,” Langyel said. “[This compact] says, ‘If you stay involved in the public schools, we will section off a system within the system for your kids.’ … That’s the real politics of what this is about.”
Until the attendance resolution, Milwaukee differed from many urban systems in that it did not have academic, performance, or behavior criteria for admission to the city’s specialty schools. Instead, all eighth-grade students were allowed to list their three top choices for high school. Students were selected based on a lottery system, with preferences in three areas: first, to students who have a brother or sister already at the school; second, to students who will help the school meet racial guidelines established by court-ordered desegregation; third, to students within the walk zones for citywide specialty high schools or the attendance area for other high schools. If the attendance preference is adopted by a school, it most likely will be applied after the preference due to racial guidelines. Some argue that the attendance resolution is merely the latest reincarnation of a long-standing attempt by some of the specialty schools, in particular Rufus King, to set up entrance requirements. Most recently, in 1993, some board members unsuccessfully tried to set up a system whereby students had to be nominated in order to attend King.
Those supporting the resolution put forward other arguments beyond the issue of rewarding students who show “responsible behavior”: that the current lottery system is unfair; that the board must provide incentives to students to reach high standards; that the admissions preference will spur improved attendance. (After it was pointed out that the original resolution did not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences and might penalize students who were sick for several weeks, the wording was changed so excused absences would not be counted.)
IS THE LOTTERY UNFAIR?
Board president Fisher told Rethinking Schools that the current lottery system “is very unfair” because kids with poor attendance and bad grades get into Rufus King while students with good grades and “who are desirous of getting an education” don’t get into King.
Board member Sinicki took issue with Fisher’s perspective. “I want to point out that the lottery system that we have in place right now may not be the best system but it is the most fair,” Sinicki said at the board meeting in June.
Board member Gardner, whom many view as the moving force behind the resolution, also argued against the lottery system. In a letter to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in July, he charged that the lottery system “prevents schools and students from choosing each other.” He also said that the attendance preference “is a small but significant step in replacing random lottery assignment with public school choice.”
Bills countered that Gardner’s perspective is a perversion of the concept of choice and is more appropriate for private schools than for a public system. “The issue is, do you let children choose the schools, or do you establish a policy where the schools get to choose the students?” Bills said in an interview.
In his letter to the Journal Sentinel, Gardner said the lottery “accelerates the departure of working and professional families of all races from MPS and from Milwaukee.” He lauded the attendance resolution and said: “Good students will no longer find themselves pre-empted by truants, dropouts and criminals.”
Of this year’s ninth graders, 14% did not reach the 90% attendance rate, excluding excused absences, according to MPS. Figures for another 12% could not be verified because they came from another district, from a private school, or from an MPS school that is not part of the electronic attendance system.
INCENTIVES AND REWARDS
School Board member Warren Braun said his main motivation in supporting the resolution was “to give children an incentive to attend school by giving them, at the end of that time, a reward as it were, a chance to attend the school of their choice.”
Gloria Erkins, principal at Vincent High School, told the school board she appreciated their concern with standards. But, she added, she would not penalize the students who may not reach 90% attendance. Erkins also said schools need to be sensitive to the vast differences in maturity among eighth graders.
Anne Wheelock, a national expert on tracking and author of Crossing the Tracks, said the MPS resolution “undermines the idea that schools should provide the second chances that all kids need and deserve at different times in their lives. I think high school should be a new beginning, a new slate, a fresh start. That’s how a lot of kids look at it, and an equal opportunity for a good high school experience is a small way we can support this for kids.
“Also, I don’t think we should view a good high school as a ‘reward,’” Wheelock continued. “It is a basic necessity, essential for survival in this society.”
A number of high school principals fear the attendance resolution feeds into the perception that there are only a few good schools in MPS and that this scarce resource must be reserved for the deserving student. They worry that the resolution will lead to a “brain drain,” in which the best students are concentrated in a few select schools. And while some schools would have a more selective student body, all high schools would be held to the same accountability measures.
Cynthia Ellwood, Director of Educational Services for MPS, told the School Board that it is a myth that only a few MPS schools offer a high-quality education. She noted, for instance, that across the system there has been a 130% increase in students taking advanced placement courses since 1990, that 13 high schools offer advanced placement calculus, that there has been a 120% increase over two years in the number of students in all high schools taking college courses paid for by MPS, and that 21% percent of graduates, from across the system, now receive scholarships.
Gardner, meanwhile, told Rethinking Schools that MPS must adopt a two-pronged approach: reward good students, and increase the number of high schools offering a college-bound curriculum.
Gardner also said that the attendance resolution is designed to further equity, by reducing the high number of African-American students on the wait list at King. Ironically, the attendance resolution may increase the wait list.
Michael Turza, director of Parent and Student Services, said, “If King has a 90% attendance requirement and people infer that ‘bad’ kids can’t come to King anymore and that ‘good’ kids will be there — and since every parent believes their kid is a good kid — the thinking might be, ‘I want my kid to go to King.’”
Jared Johnson, one of three Black board members, took issue with Gardner’s argument that the attendance requirement would promote equity and fairness. Instead, he said, the resolution will hurt a large number of kids. “We need to deal with all of our children,” he said. “We do not need to exclude those and leave them behind and say that we will advance at the expense of other kids.”
Johnson admitted that he did not usually get personal at board meetings, but felt compelled to do so in this instance. Turning to Fisher and Todd, the other Black school board members, Johnson said: “I’m certain that … both of you especially have experienced the pain and the degradation of class and elitism and I can’t believe it, that you would be a part of this. I can’t believe it.”
IS ATTENDANCE THE ISSUE?
Supporters of the resolution argued that MPS needs to put some teeth into its attendance standards, and the resolution is one way to do so. Indeed, the resolution seems to have touched a sensitive spot on the issue of attendance, with a number of high school and middle school principals saying they will use any tool they get to help underscore to kids the importance of showing up at school.
“I’ve been promoting the 90% or better attendance,” said Jacqueline Patterson, principal of the Milwaukee Education Center. “I’ve been telling my children that in the jobs they are looking for, in the high schools, and in society, attendance is important.”
The issue is whether the resolution is a serious attempt to deal with attendance, or whether attendance is being used as a smoke screen for tracking and screening. Opponents argued that if the resolution were truly about attendance, it would have dealt with more than just one semester and would have included a more comprehensive approach.
Superintendent Robert Jasna, in remarks at the school board hearing, likewise acknowledged the importance of attendance. “No matter what happens, I think it has been articulated this evening that attendance becomes critical if students are to really achieve success. But at the same time, I have heard almost a little bit of tone here — and I hope I’m wrong — that this is a quick fix for what happens in the home, in the community, and as well, in the school itself.”
Experts on truancy note there is no one explanation for low attendance. They argue that attendance policy must deal not just with the complexities of the adolescent mind, but with factors that go beyond the individual and are rooted in the school, the family situation, and the community.
There are many reasons students are absent. Sometimes it is because the student does not like his school or his teachers. Sometimes it is for family reasons — the student may be called upon to take care of sick brothers and sisters or to translate for parents and relatives who do not speak English. Sometimes it is because the link between education and a good job is not readily apparent. Sometimes it is because the student is being bullied or harassed at school.
Research on truancy has shown that students in the middle grades who develop attendance problems are typically overage for their grade, have been placed in special education or the low track, and have been suspended.
Don Moore, of the Chicago-based educational research and reform group Designs for Change, said he was struck by the resolution’s exclusive emphasis on individual responsibility for attendance. “Yet it’s very apparent that schools can have a major impact on student attendance by the way they are structured, by the nature of their educational program, by the efforts that they make to follow up on kids who are absent,” Moore told Rethinking Schools. “The language of the resolution seems to suggest that schools bear no responsibility for whether kids attend or not.”
Attendance rates vary widely at MPS middle schools, raising the question of whether students who attend schools with lower attendance will, in effect, be at a disadvantage when they apply for high school. Attendance rates in the 1995-96 school year ranged from a high of 93% at Morse Middle School for the Gifted and Talented, to a low of 78% at Parkman Middle School. Parkman had a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, 88%, while Morse had the lowest middle school figure for free and reduced lunch, 54%. (In general, MPS figures do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences.)
The attendance rate often correlates to the free or reduced lunch rate. But even some schools with similar free and reduced lunch rates have widely varying attendance rates. At Lincoln Center Middle School for the Arts, 82% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and its attendance rate was 88% last year. At Walker, 83% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and the attendance rate was 80%.
Deciding whether an absence is excused or unexcused is ultimately at the discretion of the principal, within general guidelines established by MPS. Excused absences include illness, funerals, religious holidays, or medical or dental appointments. Murky areas crop up, however, under excused areas such as “family emergencies” or “educationally beneficial” absences. What qualifies as a family emergency or whether a family vacation is educationally beneficial may depend on the parent’s explanation or how strictly a principal interprets the guidelines. In a number of schools, the homeroom teacher has the discretion to decide whether an absence is excused or unexcused.
“I don’t know if the attendance requirement has been thought out completely,” said Victor Brazil, principal at Burroughs Middle School. “For example, the child may be legally absent, but the parent fails to send in the written excuse or make the appropriate call. You are penalizing the child for the behavior of the adult.”
Like others, Brazil predicts that implementation of the attendance preference will be a bureaucratic nightmare — particularly when parents complain that their child did not get into a high school because they didn’t meet the 90% preference and there is an attempt to re-create, months later, the excused and unexcused absences of the child.
Fundamentally, however, the issue is not about attendance. It is about one’s vision of the purpose of public schooling. Should public schools mimic private schools and screen students? Or should public schools be expected to do a good job with all students? Should policy be developed with the needs of the most successful students in mind, or the least successful students?
As one high school principal told Rethinking Schools: “Why not send the most problematic kids to King? King and Morse and certain elementary schools get held up as these wonderful places, with wonderful teachers and a wonderful environment. If they are so wonderful, why don’t we take our most problematic youngsters and put them there and let those wonderful schools and wonderful teachers turn those kids around?”