Albuquerque Journal (NM)
November 13, 2012
Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) Superintendent Joel Boyd called the figures “startling.” School board President Frank Montańo characterized them as “incredible.” School board member Steven Carrillo’s only response was “Holy smoke.”
The school officials were reacting to findings that came out of an analysis of SFPS released recently that indicated “teachers and other staff” in the district miss nearly twice the number of days of school as the national average.
According to a report, teachers and other staff members in SFPS missed an average of 17 days during the 180-day 2011-2012 school year. That’s nearly 9.4% of the time, or almost one day every two weeks. The national average is nine days each school year—5% of the time, or about one day per month.
But in the wake of the presentation during a school board study session, school officials are doing a double take. “We’re taking a further look at the attendance figures because that number is certainly alarming,” said Latifah Phillips, chief of staff for the school district. “What we have is just a snapshot. We’re going to look more deeply into those numbers and present a follow-up at the next school board meeting.”
Phillips emphasized the figures for Santa Fe didn’t reflect attendance for just teachers. Counselors and educational assistants were also included. “We definitely need to clarify that,” she said. “When the report was given, we took it as a red flag. Now, we’re looking at where is the problem, and how extensive is it. We’re still collecting data, and we need to segregate it so we can figure out what plan of action to take.”
Tasked with breaking down the data is Richard Bowman, who was recently hired as the district’s accountability officer. He said it’s his job to make the numbers speak. “What we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of what’s going on and how we can improve it,” he said. “We want to find out what are the reasons, and what is our leverage of control.”
Bowman said it’s apparent absenteeism among school personnel is higher than it should be. The question is how to solve it. “The types of questions you want to ask, about what to do next, are not included in the report,” he said. “Going forward, we want to identify particular areas where we have data to make change. We want to be specific about the question, provide the right data, and make it actionable and not judgmental.”
Aiming for reform
The report was presented by Boyd’s transition advisory team, established to gather data and information to assist him in crafting a reform agenda to put the district on a path for academic improvement. Boyd, who came to Santa Fe after spending two years as assistant superintendent in Philadelphia, began his new job Aug. 1.
During the presentation, Joseph Wise, chief education officer for Atlantic Research Partners Inc. and one of seven members of the transition team, said absenteeism “is unusually high” within SFPS and cited the numbers that appeared so alarming.
He later noted there was also an especially high level of absenteeism among bus drivers, which caused other employees in the transportation department to abandon their usual duties and get behind the wheel to get kids to school.
The findings generated quite a bit of discussion. "Either we have a lot of people who are sickly that we’re hiring, or they’re unhappy because people tend to miss work and take a lot of time off if they’re super unhappy,” Carrillo said, adding that if students are expected to attend school each day, so should school employees. “We need to be demanding the same from adults as we demand from our kids.”
Montańo agreed. “If that happens in the private sector, they wouldn’t be around long. I’m curious how you’re going to address that issue,” he said, directing the question to Boyd, who said absenteeism by school staff came down to management of the workforce.
“This is just one data point,” he said. “My guess would be that this is not isolated to just teachers, that it rolls across principals, our maintenance workers, our administrators. And some of it has to do with simple management—how we’re tracking attendance and what we’re doing when people seem to be taking advantage of certain policies.
“We have policies in place to support our workforce when people do become ill. Unfortunately, when we’re seeing numbers such as what we’re seeing here, we know it goes beyond being ill, which means then we have a management issue.” Boyd said the board could expect to see recommendations for policy changes that would give managers support in supervising their staffs.
The report did offer a long-term goal for critical functions that directly relates to employee attendance. It suggested the district aim for an electronic timekeeping program that would track attendance, tardiness and overtime.
The system would be able to detect trends and identify peak periods for strategy planning. Intervention, in the form of conferences with employees who exceed a set number absences or days late for work, would then become part of the management process. The report cites research that suggests policies creating or increasing incentives can help reduce absenteeism among teachers.
“Previous research suggests that policies regarding the number of absences, the ability to carry forward unused sick days, the benefits if any of not using all allowable days, the school-level requirements about reporting absences all have the potential to influence the actual rate of teacher absenteeism,” says a paper titled, “Are Teacher Absences Worth Worrying About in the United States.”
“In assessing the desirability of adjusting such policies, policy makers must weigh the costs of absences—budgetary, administrative and educational—against the degree to which more lenient policies might make teaching an attractive career option.”
The same paper concludes that teacher absences are worth worrying about. In addition to the costs associated with hiring substitute teachers, administrative resources are expended to secure substitutes for the day. Perhaps most importantly, teacher absenteeism affects students.
“When regular teachers are not in the classroom, opportunities for students to learn are cut short,” it states. “This common-sense conclusion is bolstered by statistical evidence showing that students whose teachers miss more days for sickness score lower on state achievement tests.”
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