Teachers Who Moonlight

Last week, an estimated 70,000 people came to Burning Man 2015, “Carnival of Mirrors,” from all over the world to dance, express themselves, and take in the spectacle.

Every year, participants in the Burning Man Festival descend on the playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to form a temporary city—a self-reliant community populated by performers, artists, free spirits, and more. An estimated 70,000 people came to Burning Man 2015, “Carnival of Mirrors,” from all over the world to dance, express themselves, and take in the spectacle. Gathered below are some of the sights from the festival, photographed by Reuters photographer Jim Urquhart.

Schools, Birth Control, and Parental Consent

This year, students at 2,000 schools in the United States have access to a wide range of on-site health services, free of charge. That’s because those campuses have what are known as School-Based Health Centers, or SBHCs. The clinics, mostly in urban areas, are designed to provide universal access to quality health care, even for students who don’t have insurance. They’re typically funded by state governments, federal grants, and private foundations. School administrators manage them in conjunction with community medical organizations, hospitals, or government agencies.

Educators and health practitioners who advocate for more SBHCs argue that they improve children’s academic outcomes as well as their health. Because they’re convenient and focus on preventative care, they can reduce the amount of time a kid will miss class for doctor visits and sick days. They also help working parents: If a child at a SBHC school has an ear infection or vision trouble, needs a refill, or is due for a wellness check-up, the student’s parents don’t have to take time off from work to visit an off-campus doctor’s office or pharmacy. Today, most centers offer services as extensive as dental work, as well as counseling for issues  ranging from substance abuse to cyber-bullying.

A number of studies, including a 2011 survey of six schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, suggest that students in economically and socially disadvantaged environments can benefit remarkably from school clinics. “There is something amazing and different about seeing students on their home turf,” said Sonja O’Leary, a Colorado-based SBHC pediatrician. “Students will divulge things that they usually wouldn’t if they were sitting in a doctor’s office, even if their parents are outside in the waiting room [at school].” Over a third of the clinics also treat students’ family members—focusing on behavioral health and primary care for the household—while half serve students from other schools that lack their own on-campus clinics.

Only 7 Percent of Teens Are Using the Most Effective Form of Birth Control

But the expansion of SBHCs has also stoked pockets of controversy. Some critics want to rein in school clinics because they occasionally provide birth control: Approximately 11 percent of them offer long-acting reversible contraception, such as intrauterine devices and injections, or LARCs, which tend to be especially contentious because they’re longer-lasting and more physically invasive than, say, the pill. The issue appears to be particularly fraught in the 21 states where minors are allowed to have IUDs implanted without parental consent. Most of those states do not distinguish by age in granting youth autonomous birth-control rights, which means kids as young as 11 could be given access.

Students can also  seek birth control at off-campus clinics. But some argue that SBHCs make it easier to get contraception—and, therefore, engage in sexual activity—because the services are so accessible, particularly for younger girls who are less capable of traveling to get birth control on their own.

Advocates of SBHCs, on the other hand, say birth-control services are a key reason the clinics are so important. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended LARCs as the first line of defense in preventing teen pregnancy; unlike the pill kids don’t have to remember to take it every day. Reports have outlined remarkable success in Colorado, for example, where adolescents and low-income women were offered free IUDs or contraceptive implants—and teen pregnancy plummeted by 40 percent.

Meanwhile, Kelly Gilmore, the research coordinator at the University of Washington Medical Center’s family-planning division, says that, although it hasn’t been empirically documented, SBHCs  promote close relationships between students and their primary-care providers. That relationship can help a student who has an IUD, keeping her on track for follow-up visits, which may entail services such as STD testing and counseling. Gilmore, who has interviewed numerous Seattle SBHC staffers and public-health officials as part of her research, also noted that students have the option of calling SBHC providers after hours.

Ultimately, however, parents may have more influence on their kids’ sex lives than they think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite studies showing that parents can have a strong impact on when kids start having sex and whether they talk to their sexual partner about birth control. But their sway works both ways. Parental fear is also associated with reluctance to seek birth control.

* * *

In Washington State, which gives minors autonomous birth-control rights, a long-standing state-based Medicaid program called Take Charge is tasked with helping low-income women and teens seek family planning services, even if they don’t have parental consent. The program has seen a dramatic increase of student IUDs in recent years. In 2010, the first year LARCs were available to Seattle-area students, Neighborcare Health (which operates six SBHCs in the city), placed approximately 10 devices. By 2015, more than 500 students had received an implant or an IUD from Neighborcare.

This expansion has also caused concern. Over the summer, a spate of headlines pointed out the irony that a Seattle sixth-grader could theoretically use her lunch break to get an IUD but not a soda or candy bar from a vending machine. (On top of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Seattle has one of the nation’s toughest in-school junk-food bans.) But advocates say that both types of school policies—stringent food guidelines and accessible IUDs—stem from a holistic, prevention-based strategy that encourages students to make healthy choices for their long-term well-being.

So far, the numbers haven’t shown that particularly young students are accessing contraception services. In late August, King County and  Seattle public-health officials said they had no record of an 11- or 12-year-old seeking an IUD. If a child that young did ask a school clinic for birth control, public-health experts argue it would raise red flags and staff would consult a social worker.

School health providers say they make contraceptive decisions carefully and on a case-by-base basis, deciding what’s best for the student given her age, emotional health, and overall medical history. In other words, just because a student requests contraception doesn’t guarantee that she’ll receive it. “As a matter of public health and human rights, no law requires a pediatrician to provide an IUD or any particular method of family planning, at school or otherwise,” said Heather Boonstra, who oversees public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Schools can also choose to require parental consent even if the state law doesn’t do the same. Although Colorado, for example, grants minors autonomous birth-control rights, SBHCs in Denver require that students get parental consent—regardless of the service—explained the Colorado SBHC physician Steve Federico. “In reality, family planning is a tiny part of what we do at school-based health centers,” Federico said, noting that such services account for fewer than 10 percent of visits at Colorado’s school health centers. “Most of all, we teach students how to stay healthy.”

Similarly, SBHCs aren’t obligated to provide birth control at all. In fact, only 37 percent of them do. Nearly half of school clinics are prohibited—either by their school district, state, or affiliated health organization—from dispensing contraception. But if the goal is to get students to practice safer sex, perhaps more SBHCs should be free to do so. Today, teen pregnancy rates nationwide—and across racial and ethnic groups—sit at historic lows. What’s behind the progress? According to a 2014 Guttmacher Institute analysis, teens aren’t having less sex; they’re using more contraception. And it’s clear that teen pregnancy correlates directly with student achievement. Pregnant students have lower-than-average graduation rates, and the cycle perpetuates itself: Children of teenage mothers perform worse on measures of school readiness and are also less likely to receive a high-school diploma. A forthcoming paper out of the American Public Health Association found that SBHC users were significantly more likely to report “always” receiving reproductive health care than teens who don’t use one.

By expanding access to reliable and affordable contraception, school clinics may help reduce the number of teenagers who become pregnant. A 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Research on Children compared two school clinics located in a large urban Southwestern school district; one of the clinics dispensed contraception onsite, while the other did not, instead referring girls to an off-campus family-planning clinic. Researchers discovered that the school with the referral policy had a significantly lower “appointment keeping rate” for contraceptive services—and a higher pregnancy rate—than the school with on-site contraception.

Still, few SBHCs offer on-site contraception services. Relatively few SBHCs exist in the first place. And as Claire Brindis, director of the health-policy institute at the University of California, San Francisco, noted, that’s making it hard for SBHCs to make a serious dent in a range of U.S. adolescent health issues. Teen pregnancy is just one of them.

Why Boosting Poor Children’s Vocabulary Is Important for Public Health

Air­on Pate is boun­cing off the walls.

The not-quite-2-year-old is wait­ing with his mom Domi­n­ique and broth­er Aiden, 4, to be seen at a fed­er­ally sub­sid­ized clin­ic for low-in­come wo­men and chil­dren here in Ma­con, Geor­gia. Sit­ting still is not in his rep­er­toire of tricks.

Over there to play with a toy. Up on the child-sized table wedged in­to the corner. Across the room to touch base with mom, chat­ter­ing the en­tire time.

The con­stant babble ex­hausts Domi­n­ique, 25, but thrills the clin­ic nu­tri­tion­ist charged with im­ple­ment­ing a re­l­at­ively new statewide ef­fort to get par­ents to talk to their ba­bies. Called simply “Talk With Me Baby,” the pro­gram is a mul­ti­faceted at­tempt to fill the massive 30 mil­lion-word gap between chil­dren from lower- and up­per-income fam­il­ies by mak­ing sure that ba­bies from all backgrounds hear lots of words.

* * *

Re­search sug­gests that poor chil­dren hear about 600 words per hour, while af­flu­ent chil­dren hear 2,000. By age 4, a poor child has a listen­ing vocab­u­lary of about 3,000 words, while a wealth­i­er child wields a 20,000-word listen­ing vocab­u­lary. So it’s no sur­prise that poor chil­dren tend to enter kinder­garten already be­hind their wealth­i­er peers. But it’s not just the poverty that holds them back—it’s the lack of words. In fact, the single-best pre­dict­or of a child’s aca­dem­ic suc­cess is not par­ent­al edu­ca­tion or so­cioeco­nom­ic status, but rather the qual­ity and quantity of the words that a baby hears dur­ing his or her first three years.

Those early years are crit­ic­al. By age three, 85 per­cent of neur­al con­nec­tions are formed, mean­ing it’s dif­fi­cult for a child who has heard few words to catch up to his peers once he enters the school sys­tem.

While the word gap might sound like an edu­ca­tion prob­lem, the health consequences can be dire—and the be­ne­fits of elim­in­at­ing it can be im­mense. Pub­lic-health of­fi­cials in Geor­gia re­cog­nize this.

“This is pure bio­logy,” Brenda Fitzger­ald, Geor­gia’s Health Com­mis­sion­er and the wo­man in charge of state pub­lic-health pro­grams, said dur­ing an in­ter­view at her At­lanta of­fice. “Which is why it’s a pub­lic-health ini­ti­at­ive.”

Chil­dren with more words do bet­ter in school. Adults who were good stu­dents and earned a col­lege de­gree have longer life ex­pect­an­cies. They are at a lower risk for hy­per­ten­sion, de­pres­sion, and sleep prob­lems. They are less likely to be smokers and to be obese.

“There is no way we can sep­ar­ate health and edu­ca­tion,” said Jen­nifer Stapel-Wax, dir­ect­or of in­fant and tod­dler clin­ic­al re­search op­er­a­tions at the Mar­cus Aut­ism Cen­ter in At­lanta, and the self-de­scribed “chief cheer­lead­er” for the effort.

* * *

So in Geor­gia, from the gov­ernor’s of­fice on down to nurses and WIC (Wo­men, In­fants, and Chil­dren) clin­ics like the one the Pate boys vis­ited in Ma­con, the solu­tion and the mes­sage are clear: Talk with your baby (and help im­prove the state’s well-be­ing).

That second part is not touted much, but doc­tors and nurses be­hind the cam­paign hope that by en­ga­ging par­ents in the first part early and of­ten, the second part will fol­low—and they can al­le­vi­ate the need for costly in­ter­ven­tions down the line.

Talk­ing with your baby might sound ob­vi­ous. And of course most par­ents do talk to their ba­bies. But many are miss­ing qual­ity op­por­tun­it­ies to en­gage. Talk With Me Baby of­fers some guidelines for par­ents:

Speak to your baby while you’re preg­nant be­cause yes, she really can hear you in there. It might seem awk­ward to talk to an in­fant who does not talk back, but watch closely. She’s ac­tu­ally re­spond­ing. Tell her about what you’re mak­ing for din­ner, what you’re do­ing when you’re get­ting her dressed, and where you’re go­ing as you load her in­to the car­seat. See how she stops suck­ing that pa­ci­fier while you talk, or how she locks eyes with you? Those are signs that she’s listen­ing, and she un­der­stands a lot more than she lets on. Does your baby gurgle or coo back when you talk? That’s clas­sic “serve and re­turn” and it’s a crit­ic­al sign of brain de­vel­op­ment.

Nurses in Geor­gia have known all of this for years. But they hadn’t ne­ces­sar­ily been passing the mes­sage along to par­ents. Un­til now.

Back at the clin­ic in Ma­con, a Talk With Me Baby in­form­a­tion­al video plays on con­stant loop in the wait­ing room. Down the hall, Domi­n­ique says she was not read to as a kid, but there are books for Aiden and Air­on at home, and if it hasn’t been too busy a day, they read at night.

“I ex­pec­ted to have to tell him ‘Go get a book,’ but he does it,” she said of her young­est. Her old­est, she said, will grab a book and make up his own stor­ies. The trio goes to the lib­rary, she said, and she rents Elmo DVDs to watch to­geth­er. They don’t usu­ally check out books, she ex­plained, be­cause there are already books at home.

Domi­n­ique, who said she couldn’t se­cure her son a spot in Head Start, the fed­er­al early child­hood pro­gram for low-in­come fam­il­ies, is home full-time with the children. As the WIC nu­tri­tion­ist of­fers in­form­a­tion about nu­tri­tion and vac­cines, he will also as­sess and re­spond to her com­ments about how she reads and talks with her boys. He will re­in­force the im­port­ance of lan­guage nu­tri­tion, the term Talk With Me Baby uses in place of the neg­at­ive-sound­ing word gap.

It’s a good thing that Aiden is mak­ing up his own stor­ies, he might say. He might also gently add that check­ing out new and dif­fer­ent books at the lib­rary to go along with the DVDs is a great way to keep both boys in­ter­ested in read­ing.

* * *

“We need to sens­it­ize par­ents to baby speak,” Stapel-Wax said.

As one prong of Talk With Me Baby, a cur­riculum for nurs­ing stu­dents has been de­veloped and nurses in the At­lanta metro area are be­ing trained to communicate to par­ents the im­port­ance of talk­ing to ba­bies. That they are the ones de­liv­er­ing the mes­sage is a care­fully cal­cu­lated fact. Again and again, nurses top the list of most trus­ted pro­fes­sion­als, ahead of med­ic­al doc­tors, clergy, and cer­tainly politi­cians. At the same time, Talk With Me Baby has already been de­ployed to the state’s nearly 200 WIC clin­ics, where WIC nu­tri­tion­ists are its cham­pi­on.

The idea is to reach all At­lanta-area new­borns, re­gard­less of fam­ily back­ground or in­come, by 2017 and all new­borns in the state by 2020. Fitzger­ald says the state is on track to reach those goals. It’s too early to tell the real im­pact of the pro­gram, but ini­tial eval­u­ations are be­ing con­duc­ted.

The goal—as Arianne Wel­don, dir­ect­or of Get Geor­gia Read­ing, one of the cam­paigns spear­head­ing the pro­gram, put it—is to em­bed the sys­tems that already reach most ba­bies in a sus­tain­able, scal­able way. WIC clin­ics see more than 80 per­cent of low-in­come par­ents and their chil­dren, and nurses see vir­tu­ally all ba­bies in Geor­gia. A third of the state’s tod­dlers are en­rolled in some form of early-child­hood edu­ca­tion.

Airon Pate, almost 2, and Aiden Pate, 4, with their mom, Dominique Pate, in a clinic in Macon, Georgia. The state has launched a program to get parents talking with their babies. (Emily DeRuy / National Journal)

While there have been some costs up front, the idea is for the mes­saging to be­come part of the very fab­ric of the ser­vices that nurses, nu­tri­tion­ists, and early child­hood care cen­ters throughout the state of­fer. “Talk­ing to your baby doesn’t cost [par­ents] money,” Fitzger­ald said.

Right now, Geor­gia is the only state tak­ing such a co­ordin­ated, wide­spread, public-health-fo­cused ap­proach to re­du­cing the word gap.

There are more isol­ated ef­forts in places like Chica­go and Provid­ence, Rhode Island, but they op­er­ate on a much smal­ler scale.

Most word gap ini­ti­at­ives, in­clud­ing Talk With Me Baby, are re­l­at­ively new pub­lic-private part­ner­ships de­veloped in the last sev­er­al years. Their found­a­tion—the land­mark Hart-Ris­ley study from re­search­ers at the Uni­versity of Kan­sas that il­lu­min­ated the word gap—is 20 years old, but it typ­ic­ally takes a couple of dec­ades to get from re­search to on-the-ground im­ple­ment­a­tion, mak­ing now a lo­gic­al time for such pro­grams to emerge. And, as Fitzger­ald put it, “the bio­logy fi­nally caught up.”

She and oth­ers spear­head­ing such ef­forts can go in­to po­ten­tial fun­ders and say, “here are the brain scans, here is the sci­ence be­hind why this is crit­ic­al.”

In mid-Au­gust, the U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Of­fice of Minor­ity Health awar­ded $200,000 a year for up to five years to Geor­gia’s health de­part­ment to, in part, sup­port lan­guage nu­tri­tion through Talk With Me Baby.

“The ex­pect­a­tion is that there will be ways to con­tin­ue what we’re do­ing,” Stapel-Wax said.

If Talk With Me Baby is suc­cess­ful, Fitzger­ald ex­pects to see oth­er statewide pro­grams take shape.

There are cer­tainly people watch­ing, from state health of­ficers in Cali­for­nia and In­di­ana to aca­dem­ics at the Uni­versity of Kan­sas. The White House has is­sued a “call to ac­tion” to re­duce the word gap, spot­light­ing the Geor­gia pro­gram specific­ally. And the Clin­ton Found­a­tion has launched “Talk­ing is Teach­ing” through its early child­hood Too Small to Fail cam­paign.

National Journal

“I think this is prob­ably the most im­port­ant work we’re do­ing right now,” Fitzger­ald said, a pretty big state­ment from the state’s top health of­fi­cial about a pro­gram that from the out­side doesn’t even look like it should be about pub­lic health.

While, as Stapel-Wax noted, Talk With Me Baby might sound like a pro­gram you’d ex­pect to find in Mas­sachu­setts or New York, the fact that it’s hap­pen­ing first in a state like Geor­gia doesn’t sur­prise Fitzger­ald. “It has strong sup­port be­cause this is not a Band-Aid,” she said. Mul­tiple people in­ter­viewed for this piece re­layed stor­ies of Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Nath­an Deal’s wife, Sandra, gush­ing about the pro­gram on vis­its to hos­pit­als.

If all goes as planned, the team be­hind the cam­paign hopes to get a lot more people talk­ing—most im­port­antly, ba­bies.

The Power of Free Community College

Caitlin McLawhorn could nev­er have gone to col­lege, she says, without the free tu­ition she re­ceived to at­tend com­munity col­lege first and to earn an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree.

Grow­ing up as the daugh­ter of a single moth­er, money was al­ways tight in McLawhorn’s house­hold in East Ten­ness­ee. Her fath­er left the fam­ily eight years ago, and her moth­er, who didn’t fin­ish col­lege, sup­por­ted her two chil­dren on her salary as a low-level of­fice work­er in Oak Ridge, out­side of Knoxville. Col­lege—even if it was a goal—seemed far away from the classrooms of McLawhorn’s rur­al high school.

The Next Economy

But in 2010, McLawhorn’s guid­ance coun­selors told her about a pro­gram called Ten­ness­ee Achieves, which al­lows any loc­al high-school stu­dent to at­tend community col­lege for free. The only caveats? Stu­dents must main­tain a C-average and at­tend com­munity col­lege for con­sec­ut­ive semesters. They also must per­form eight hours of com­munity ser­vice each semester and meet regularly with a vo­lun­teer ment­or (usu­ally, a pro­fes­sion­al in the com­munity) who can help the stu­dent re­main on track.

McLawhorn filled out the ap­plic­a­tion and, by 2011, found her­self en­rolled in Pellis­sippi State Com­munity Col­lege in Knoxville, where she stud­ied lit­er­at­ure and even­tu­ally earned her as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree. “I would have had no chance to go without this pro­gram,” she says now, just months away from earn­ing a full-fledged bach­el­or’s de­gree. “It is so sur­real to achieve something that I nev­er thought I could in my life.”

The pro­gram ori­gin­ated in Knoxville in 2008. A brainchild of the city’s may­or, Bill Haslam, a Re­pub­lic­an who is now Ten­ness­ee’s gov­ernor, it was in­ten­ded as a work­force-de­vel­op­ment ini­ti­at­ive to cre­ate a bet­ter-edu­cated class of loc­al workers. After dig­ging in­to loc­al edu­ca­tion stat­ist­ics, city of­fi­cials real­ized that a third of Knoxville’s gradu­at­ing high-school seni­ors didn’t pur­sue any type of high­er edu­ca­tion, in­clud­ing cre­den­tial or tech­nic­al school­ing. They came mainly from low-in­come fam­il­ies in which no one else had at­ten­ded col­lege. Many had mediocre grades in high school and re­quired re­medi­al classes.

The im­petus for Ten­ness­ee Achieves was Knoxville of­fi­cials’ de­sire to give these stu­dents a chance for more edu­ca­tion. The fund­ing ori­gin­ally came from sev­en private donors, not­ably Randy Boyd, the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive chair­man of a com­pany that makes elec­tron­ic fences for pets. The $1.2 mil­lion he donated and raised, com­bined with the may­or’s staff and man­power, formed a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship to get Ten­ness­ee Achieves off the ground.

By the fall of 2009, the pro­gram helped 287 Ten­ness­ee stu­dents en­roll in community col­lege, aided by 181 vo­lun­teer ment­ors. The fund­ing covered all tu­ition ex­penses, so that stu­dents such as McLawhorn could fin­ish com­munity col­lege debt-free. “The fund­ing is very crit­ic­al to the con­ver­sa­tion,” says Krissy DeAle­jandro, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Ten­ness­ee Achieves (or tnAchieves, as the organ­iz­a­tion calls it­self on its web­site). “It is the car­rot that brings the kids to the table, but it is the ment­or­ing and oth­er sup­ports that truly define suc­cess.” A third of these ori­gin­al stu­dents gradu­ated with­in three years.

The Knoxville pro­gram in­tro­duced so many ad­di­tion­al stu­dents to the community-col­lege sys­tem that Haslam, elec­ted gov­ernor in 2010, ex­pan­ded it last fall in­to a statewide gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ive called Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise. Its $361 mil­lion en­dow­ment, gen­er­ated by the state lot­tery funds, en­ables stu­dents to at­tend any of the state’s 13 com­munity col­leges, 27 tech­nic­al col­leges, or four-year in­sti­tu­tions that of­fer as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees. Of­fi­cials es­tim­ate that 16,000 to 18,000 in­com­ing stu­dents will at­tend com­munity col­lege in Ten­ness­ee this academ­ic year thanks to the pro­gram.

Com­munity col­leges across Ten­ness­ee have braced for this in­flux. One of them is North­east State Com­munity Col­lege, in Bloun­tville, which an­ti­cip­ates en­roll­ment will double this fall. The school hired ad­di­tion­al fac­ulty and ad­ded classes, especially for its most pop­u­lar pro­grams, such as ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing, welding, auto­mot­ives, and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Roughly half of North­east State’s stu­dents even­tu­ally trans­fer to a four-year school. But even for stu­dents who stop with an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree or cer­ti­fic­ate, the ex­pos­ure to com­munity col­lege can be in­valu­able, ac­cord­ing to Janice Gilliam, the school’s pres­id­ent. “We have a lot of stu­dents who do not think about go­ing to col­lege. Some of their par­ents have not even fin­ished high school. This is a huge step to break this cycle,” she says. “A lot of them don’t even know they have tal­ent.”

The vo­lun­teer ment­ors are a cru­cial ele­ment that dis­tin­guishes Ten­ness­ee Promise from or­din­ary schol­ar­ship pro­grams. The ment­ors check in with students weekly, wheth­er by text mes­sage, phone, or in per­son. They help students nav­ig­ate the bur­eau­cracy of a com­munity-col­lege sys­tem, which can be for­eign to first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents.

“I had com­pletely taken for gran­ted what know­ledge of the col­lege-ad­mis­sions pro­cess means,” says Owen Driskill, who has worked as a ment­or for the past seven years. “I had a mom and dad who talked about col­lege and knew how the pro­cess works. You just see how big a dif­fer­ence it makes to ment­or stu­dents and help them trans­late all of these steps and pro­cesses.”

The goal is for 55 per­cent of Ten­nesseans to hold some type of high­er-edu­ca­tion cre­den­tial by 2025, says Mike Krause, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise. Cur­rently, just 34 per­cent of state res­id­ents have a col­lege cre­den­tial.

This means op­por­tun­it­ies for stu­dents who might oth­er­wise have taken less­er career paths. After earn­ing her as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree and liv­ing at home to save money, McLawhorn trans­ferred to Maryville Col­lege, a small, four-year private school in East Ten­ness­ee. She has lived on cam­pus, worked as a res­id­ent ad­viser, and ma­jored in writ­ing and com­mu­nic­a­tions, with a minor in busi­ness.

Now 21 years old, McLawhorn ex­pects to gradu­ate in Decem­ber and hopes to move to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to lobby for poor fam­il­ies in high­er edu­ca­tion. It’s an in­spir­ing am­bi­tion for a young Ten­nessean who had not an­ti­cip­ated such a ca­reer—or chance in life—for her­self.

What a Decade Has Done for New Orleans’ Schools

NEW ORLEANS—As a native of New Orleans, I found all the recent attention foisted upon my hometown for the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina both a blessing and a curse. While I’ve welcomed some of the best reporting and most thoughtful conversations I’ve ever seen about my city, I worry that the attention will dissipate just when the city needs it the most.

My feelings about where New Orleans is today oscillate between the “Katrina 10” narrative, pushed by officials who believe the city is better than ever, and the “Katrina Truth” narrative, pushed by advocacy groups who say the recovery effort has left out the city’s black residents.

I was a 17-year-old high-school senior living in the Treme neighborhood when the levees failed, flooding half the neighborhood but leaving my home untouched. My uptown high school suffered only wind damage, so my family was back in the city just two months later.

Nine months later, I was off to college hundreds of miles away from my still-reeling hometown. I felt guilty leaving a city to where so many other black residents, including neighbors and family members, could not return. Ten years later, many are still left out of the post-Katrina economic boom. Just over 50 percent of black children in the city live in poverty, up from 44 percent before Katrina. And a widely cited recent study found that more than half of the black men in New Orleans were unemployed.

Reading, Writing, Resurrection

The much heralded, school-choice-driven overhaul of the city’s education system has had mixed results, too. While test scores and graduation rates are up, a study released earlier this year by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute found that 18 percent of young adults in the New Orleans metropolitan area—many of them educated in the city’s new charter-school landscape—are neither employed nor enrolled in school. The city has the third-highest rate of “disconnected” young adults in the country. And the number of suspensions remain high—46,625 were issued during the 2013-14 school year, which was more than the number of students enrolled in the city’s public schools.

Such problems existed long before the storm, and before the Louisiana state board of education took control of all but a handful of New Orleans schools, eventually creating a city where almost 100 percent of the public schools are charters.

These facts and figures were on my mind during the week leading up to the Saturday anniversary of the storm. Across the city, hotel conference rooms and community centers played host to events reflecting on what the last decade has meant for the city. I attended one sponsored by America Healing, a racial-equity initiative designed to raise awareness of unconscious biases in order to help communities overcome them. (American Healing is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is among the numerous funders of the news outlet that produced this report in collaboration with The Atlantic.)

While none of the attendees—most of whom are social-justice advocates—seemed shocked by the statistics that underscore the city’s uneven recovery, there was still plenty of anger and pain. The 16 people who made up my “healing-session” group each cited the points at which they thought the recovery had gone awry: how the fund for rebuilding homes had discriminated against black homeowners, how the rebuilding effort too often excluded minority-owned companies, how there had been too few workforce-training programs for young New Orleanians coming home to a city booming with construction jobs, and how thousands of veteran black teachers were fired and replaced with a much younger and whiter teaching force. One attendee, who came home and finished high school in post-Katrina New Orleans, complained that those new teachers were more interested in disciplining than educating him.

The Hechinger Report.

Test Prep Is More Expensive—for Asian Students

Every year, thousands of high-school students get ready for the SAT by using The Princeton Review’s test-preparation services.

But few, if any, realize that the prices for The Princeton Review’s online SAT tutoring packages vary substantially depending on where customers live. If they type some zip codes into the company’s website, they are offered The Princeton Review’s Premier course for as little as $6,600. For other zip codes, the same course costs as much as $8,400.

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. (Read ProPublica’s research methodology here.)

The gap remains even for Asians in lower-income neighborhoods. Consider a zip code in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Asians make up 70.5 percent of the population in this zip code. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in the zip code, $41,884, is lower than most, yet The Princeton Review customers there are quoted the highest price.


The Princeton Review said in a statement that its pricing is based on the “costs of running our business and the competitive attributes of the given market,” and that the company charges the same price everywhere in New York City. Although the test-prep service markets its service as “24-hr Online Tutoring,” the company says the tutoring is done in one-on-one sessions in person or online and that the tutors typically live in the same areas as their students.

“The areas that experience higher prices will also have a disproportionately higher population of members of the financial services industry, people who tend to vote Democratic, journalists, and any other group that is more heavily concentrated in areas like New York City,” The Princeton Review’s statement said.

These types of price differences are not illegal, and the consequences are not intentional, but researchers say they are likely to become more common in the age of services like Uber, which set prices by computer algorithms. The Princeton Review says its prices are simply determined by geographic region.

Last year, a White House report on “Big Data” cautioned that the “algorithmic decisions raise the specter of ‘redlining’ in the digital economythe potential to discriminate against the most vulnerable classes of our society under the guise of neutral algorithms.”

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that the online office retailer Staples was varying prices by zip code. Staples appeared to be calculating prices based on the user’s distance from a rival store, but the inadvertent effect was that people in lower-income zip codes saw the higher prices.

In 2014, researchers at Northeastern University found that top websites, such as Home Depot, Orbitz, and Travelocity, were steering some users toward more expensive products. And this year, another study found that users who were identified by Google as female received fewer ads for a high-paying job.

Offline, the practice of offering different prices for the same product in different places is fairly commongasoline or a gallon of milk can be priced differently just a few blocks apart. But as long as there is no intent to racially discriminate, it is generally legal, says Andrew Selbst, an attorney who co-authored a paper on the biases that can be inherent in Big Data.

“If you are open for business, you can’t discriminate against certain protected classes,” Selbst said.

Unintentional racial discrimination is illegal in housing and employment under the legal doctrine known as “disparate impact,” which prohibits inadvertent actions that hurt people in a protected class.

But the disparate-impact doctrine does not apply to the online world, where it’s often difficult to determine how and why different prices are being offered.

Earlier this year, Harvard undergraduate Christian Haigh stumbled on The Princeton Review’s variable prices doing research for a class he was taking called “Data Science to Save the World.”

Haigh had been looking for price differences in hotel rooms if he booked from different locations around the world. But he wasn’t finding much. So he looked for websites that required entering a zip code.

“We thought maybe if you have to put in the zip code, they were trying to discriminate,” Haigh said. Today, Haigh and three fellow students are publishing their findings that The Princeton Review’s higher prices correlate to areas with higher income.

ProPublica reviewed the code that one of Haigh’s fellow students posted on a public website and collected its own data in July, and again on Monday. The data showed that The Princeton Review offered four different prices for the same “Premier Level” online-tutoring package.

Many of the prices are regional. For instance, the entire New York City area, including Long Island, receives the highest possible price, $8,400. Much of California, except San Diego, is offered the second-highest price, $7,200, while zip codes in San Diego are charged the lowest price.

Because the pricing regions are large, sometimes spanning multiple states, they are different than the personalized-tech algorithms used by some websites, which make real-time decisions about which advertisements to show to a particular visitor.

ProPublica tested whether The Princeton Review prices were tied to different characteristics of each zip code, including income, race, and education level. When it came to getting the highest prices, living in a zip code with a high median income or a large Asian population seemed to make the greatest difference.

The analysis showed that higher-income areas are twice as likely to receive higher prices than the general population. For example, wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., are charged higher prices. But that isn’t always the case: Residents of affluent neighborhoods in Dallas are charged the lowest price, $6,600.

Customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents were 1.8 times as likely to be offered higher prices, regardless of income. For instance, residents of the gritty, industrial city of Westminster, California, which is half Asian with a median income below most, were charged the second-highest price for the Premier tutoring service.

The Princeton Review said it would be a mistake to call its pricing practices discrimination. “To equate the incidental differences in impact that occur from this type of geographic-based pricing that pervades all American commerce with discrimination misconstrues both the literal, legal, and moral meaning of the word,” the company said in its statement.

The company said the prices of its online tutoring services are based on the prices of local tutors, which vary “just as virtually every good or service does, be it gasoline, rent, or eggs.”

Even if the price differences were unintentional, the Harvard students said they found them disturbing. Haigh, the student who discovered the variations, is an economics major and said he’s not generally against price differences unless particular demographic groups are affected.

“It’s something that makes a very small impact on one individual’s life but can make a big impact to large groups,” Haigh said.

This article appears courtesy of ProPublica. Lauren Kirchner contributed to this report.

Why Summer Vacations Should Be Shorter

I’m shaking sand from the beach towels and tucking bathing suits into plastic storage bins in the hall closet. The paperwork for fall sports and music classes is waiting on the kitchen counter. Tomorrow, we’ll make the obligatory annual trips to Supercuts for new hairdos and Staples for $300 worth of three-ring binders, tissue boxes, and other supplies.

The last week of summer—the week before school starts up again—is always bittersweet. We certainly need a break from homework, class projects, and the relentless after-school schedule. This summer, my family and I spent seven supremely lazy days on the Jersey shore. There were spontaneous trips to Manhattan and sleepovers at Grandma’s house. I taught my oldest how to drive as my youngest composed music on his Garage Band app. Indeed, summers not only relieve us from grueling routines, they also provide opportunities for the kids to learn skills that can’t be taught in a classroom.

But for me, summer also means weeks of expensive camps, summer reading packets, and the challenge of trying to write articles amid dozens of interruptions. At several points during this year’s summer break, I found myself wishing that my kids were back in school.

Why is the school year almost always limited to 180 days? And why do most schools still operate on an agrarian calendar with a huge 12-week break in the middle? I imagine that very few children these days are needed to harvest produce on their family farms. And with the changes in parenting styles and the increasing number of dual-income families, today’s children have fewer opportunities to spend their summer days as they might have in the past—shooting hoops or drinking lemonade with buddies in the backyard. They’re far more likely to be enrolled in pricey extracurricular programs or otherwise spending their days at home alone, watching SpongeBob in their pajamas until noon as they slowly forget their math facts.

An array of political and education leaders, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have championed a longer school year. “Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century,” Duncan said in 2012. New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie has also chimed in on the issue, writing in a June op-ed that “there is no reason that K-12 education should be an eight-month enterprise in this country … We need to adjust the model.”

A large body of evidence suggests that the 12-week hiatus can have a lasting negative impact on kids’ educational outcomes. “The Summer Slide” results in several lost months of reading and math skills, particularly among children who come from lower-income households. Children from affluent families experience similar declines in their math skills, though some research indicates that, thanks to their parents’ emphasis on summer reading, such students may actually make slight gains in their language-arts skills during the summer months. In other words, the 12-week vacation may exacerbate income-based inequality in school achievement.

The research on the academic benefits of an extended school year is mixed and inconclusive, in part because so few schools use a longer calendar; according to the nonprofit National Center on Time and Learning, only 170 schools nationwide, most of them charters, use extended calendars. Charter schools such as those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, often attribute some of their academic successes to their calendar, which at KIPP runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with extra schooling in the summer and on some Saturdays. KIPP students spend 600 more hours a year in school than children who attend traditional schools. (Critics of extended school years argue, however, that other variables play a larger role in boosting the students’ academic performance.)

Even with a push by national policymakers, experts say the school year is unlikely to change because of politics and finances. Teachers’ unions tend to oppose efforts to overhaul the traditional school calendar, arguing that teachers need a long break to participate in professional development and prepare new lesson plans, among other responsibilities. Then there are the practical concerns. To stay open on hot days, older schools would require the installation of air conditioning units. And of course, teachers and staff would have to be compensated for their time. In 2012, The New York Times reported that insufficient funding forced a number of school districts that had experimented with a longer school year to return to the old 180-day model. Anybody who has witnessed fraught local politics around school budgets knows there is little political support for raising taxes to cover additional school expenses.

But again, that leaves individual families with the burden of figuring out and paying for activities to keep their kids busy during the summer months. Kids with means are often sent to camp or enrichment programs or private summer school. One study estimated that parents spend $16.6 billion total annually on summer activities for their children. According to the same study, parents estimated the cost of summer child care—including camp, swimming pools, day trips, and babysitting—at $433 per child ($642 for affluent families). In my area, the typical six-hour camp costs between $300 to $1000 per week with additional costs for bussing, food, and tips.

This summer, my husband and I paid for three weeks of SAT classes for my older son. Meanwhile, my younger son, who has special needs, attended two camps—one to improve his social skills and another to bolster his computer knowledge. I paid my older son to act as his “shadow” at the computer camp. (Camps and activities for special-needs kids are scarce and far more expensive than those for their general-education peers. Special-needs kids also have a pronounced need for summer enrichment.) We spent several thousand dollars on these programs and other activities over this summer.

On top of paying for these extracurricular programs, middle-class parents often strive to maintain their children’s academic proficiency during the vacation by taking on the task of teacher. This summer, I made countless trips to Barnes and Noble and the local library to keep the kids reading. I kept a timer going to make sure that my youngest practiced his math through Khan Academy; I imperfectly enforced time restrictions on computer games.

One might argue that I should let my son ride his bike to the local pool, or roam the neighborhood engaged in nihilistic fun. But where we live, at least, this kind of lazy summer living is no longer an option for kids. As The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin has reported, American parenting standards, and a fear of lurking dangers, have placed more and more emphasis on keeping kids constantly occupied and monitored. As a result, there are no readily available buddies outside the front door. That means parents have to arrange play dates and find other ways to provide some structure to the day.

The fact that I’m home to arrange any of this is somewhat rare in itself. I’m able to write from anywhere, but most jobs take place outside the home, and few professions correspond with the traditional school calendar. In the United States, the average worker spends 47 a week at his or her job and enjoys only 16 days a year of paid leave. Yet even in summer programs, students are typically dismissed early in the afternoon, well before the close of a typical business day. This model almost assumes that every child has at least one stay-at-home parent, which in reality is only true for a minority of households.

Families cope with these challenges in different ways. Some families have grandparents who can provide childcare. Others sign up for aftercare, and a few even send their children to months of sleep away camp. Sometimes, one parent stays at home or chooses a more flexible career in order to provide supervision over the summer.

The Myth of a Teacher’s ‘Summer Vacation’

Some districts, hoping to avoid the summer slide, have been experimenting with novel year-round calendars. At several schools in Wake County, North Carolina, students and teachers are still in school for 180 days annually, but those days are spaced evenly throughout the year. Students may have classes for 45 days, take a 15-day vacation, and then return to school. Advocates say this kind of schedule not only improves academics but helps prevent overcrowding and teacher burnout: Clusters of students and teachers take their breaks at different times, which means one group is almost always using the facilities while others take time off. But while this model may have certain advantages, it does not solve the childcare problem.

A longer school year does not necessarily require traditional classroom programming. In June and July, schools could, say, provide in-depth music, art, and athletic classes with just an hour or two spent on academics. Instruction could be provided by volunteers, parents, or other members of the community. Schools could supplement their budgets with contributions from localities and parents. Attendance could be voluntary to provide flexibility for different family needs. These programs might even create income for a school district, if they attracted tuition-paying children from nearby communities.

There is no question that families need help in the summer. While there isn’t the political will to increase the number of traditional classroom days, creative policy-making could provide new options for summer instruction. In the meantime, I’m knee deep in beach towels and binders, more than ready for a return to the school routine.

The Demise of Private Schools

NEW ORLEANS—A more or less orderly line of 4-year-olds, the boys in uniform blue polo shorts and the girls in plaid-checked jumpers, line up in the corridor of St. Rita Catholic School in the neighborhood known as Uptown.

College banners hang from the ceilings, inspirational passages on the walls, and a sign on the door that says these newest, youngest St. Rita scholars will be heading to college in 2029.

Catholic schools like this one have exceptional records of success; almost all of their graduates do, in fact, go on to college. But that hasn’t been enough to keep them from hemorrhaging students. Confronted with falling birth rates and demographic shifts, rising tuition, the growth of charter schools, and other challenges, parochial schools are seeing their enrollments plummet.

And it’s not just in New Orleans, where the archdiocese has also had to contend with the exodus that followed Hurricane Katrina, and where 20 Catholic schools have closed in the period beginning even before Katrina hit, including three last year. Catholic schools nationwide have fewer than half as many students as they did 50 years ago, and the decline has resumed in the last 10 years after leveling off briefly in the late 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly 1,650 schools have closed or been consolidated in the last 10 years, 88 of them last year alone, the National Catholic Education Association says.

seen their numbers drop since the recession, too, the Education Department reports, for many of the same reasons, along with growing interest in homeschooling among higher-income families. “Within the independent school community, there has been this trend of saying, ‘This decline in enrollment is just the Catholic schools,’” said Myra McGovern, vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools. “But it’s not.”

The falloff is forcing private and parochial schools to launch sophisticated marketing crusades—digital billboards along New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Expressway flash the local archdiocese’s slogan “Why Catholic Education?” that’s part of its campaign to enlist students, for example—and other strategies.

Some have elevated their fundraising, using methods as sophisticated as what many private colleges and universities practice. They recruit students from other countries. They offer special programs and events in the summers that bring in revenue. They’re redeveloping buildings and property into profit-making conference centers and hotels.

“Independent schools today cannot be the schools on the hill of yesteryear and expect families to be knocking on their doors and writing checks,” said Nick Stoneman, president of the 157-year-old Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota, which has added a campus in Beijing with 180 Chinese students, turned its former infirmary into an inn, opened a school store and two cafés, and expanded its golf course from nine to 18 holes and sold off house lots around it.

Thornton Academy, a private high school in Saco, Maine, retrofitted an underused building to house a middle school, then built a dormitory and recruited 155 students from China and other countries, to help maintain enrollment in a state whose supply of school-aged children has plunged. “We can’t just rely on students from Maine anymore,” said Rene Menard, headmaster. “Those numbers are way down.”

Shattuck-St. Mary’s is now considering opening more satellite campuses in China, and in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam, and one in Chicago on property the rest of which it would develop to produce revenue for scholarships.

“That’s the kind of thinking independent schools need to have now,” said Stoneman, a former Wall Street bond trader and investment banker. “There’s going to be a have-and-have-not situation … The heavily endowed schools are going to have to tighten their belts, but ultimately will be okay. It’s the other 85 percent that are going to struggle.”

Applications are dropping and costs are up as independent schools wage a facilities arms race and try to deal with escalating technology and staffing costs—at Catholic schools, because the number of nuns is down 72 percent since the mid-1960s, and they have gone from comprising most of the teachers to fewer than 2 percent of them, requiring the hiring of higher-paid lay teachers.

The cost of offering financial aid to fill seats has also skyrocketed as enrollment has declined; nearly a quarter of private-school students get financial aid, compared to 17 percent 10 years ago, and the average grant has grown by nearly 25 percent, the National Association of Independent Schools reports.

“All of these things add to their expenses, which funnels into the tuition equation,” said Walter Dillingham Jr., the managing director in the endowments and foundations practice at Wilmington Trust in New York, who has studied independent schools. “Tuition has been rising for private schools, and families just don’t have the capacity to pay it.”

Median tuition is up by nearly 52 percent in the last 10 years, to $22,301, at private day and $50,811 at private boarding schools, the independent-schools association says. Average tuition at Catholic schools is $3,880 in primary and $9,622 in secondary grades, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Charter schools, which are free to families, are also proving to be formidable rivals. Charters serving primary students in urban areas, which are supposed to provide an alternative to public schools, get almost a third of their students from private schools, a study by the Cato Institute found. That’s been a particular challenge in New Orleans, where the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that 91 percent of public school students now go to charter schools. Even in suburbs, the institute found, more than one in 10 charter school students previously went to private schools.

“Charter schools initially, because of where they were primarily located, weren’t as great a threat as they’re becoming now,” McGovern said. “Now, as the charter school movement has expanded into suburbs or wealthier parts of cities, they have become competition.”

So is a boom in homeschooling, driven in part by resistance to standardized tests and the Common Core. Higher-income parents who work in fields such as technology, with flexible schedules—who might previously have chosen private schools—are increasingly turning to homeschooling, McGovern said.

Even harder to manage is a kaleidoscope of demographic changes. Roughly half of all kindergarteners through high-school seniors in America are now nonwhite, the U.S. Department of Education says, and a quarter are Hispanic, without a private or Catholic school-going tradition. White Catholics, meanwhile, have moved from cities to suburbs with good public schools, forgoing Catholic education for their children, an analysis by the census bureau found.

Catholic schools, many of them in urban areas that are increasingly Hispanic, see Hispanic families as a critical potential market. The Alliance for Catholic Education, a center based at Notre Dame, is trying to help them respond to it, with a goal of quadrupling the number of Hispanic students in Catholic schools to one million by 2020.

“That’s something many dioceses are just now waking up to: reaching out to these groups,” said Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director of Catholic education at the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.

The Segura Initiative of the Diocese of Richmond, for example, is offering financial aid to Hispanic families to go to Catholic schools there, whose Hispanic enrollment has climbed by 35 percent since 2010. Similar initiatives are under way in Tucson and Chicago.

It’s part of a new way of looking at the world for Catholic schools—namely, not taking for granted that church members automatically will send their children to the parish school, but instead emphasizing the 98.6 percent graduation rate for Catholic schools, nine out of 10 of whose students go on to finish college within four years. Those results are higher than the national averages of 81 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

“With parents who may not necessarily be practicing, the case for sending their child to Catholic school doesn’t necessarily become an extension of the parish experience. It’s a case of better education,” Fleming said. “Most parents don’t want to spend $3,600 or $4,000 paying for something they can get for free. So you have to make the value argument. We have the best story to tell about education in this country, if you think about it. And sometimes we don’t trumpet it out that way.”

Catholic schools are making that argument on billboards, in social media, in radio ads in Grand Rapids, and in an app in Joliet, Illinois, targeted at parents in their 20s and 30s giving information on appropriate Christian names for children, steps to baptism—and where to find the local Catholic school.

There’s one other trend with huge implications for embattled private schools: the school-choice movement. Voucher programs are now in place in 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Most secular independent schools won’t take vouchers, which have regulatory strings attached and usually don’t come close to covering the actual tuition price. But many hard-pressed Catholic schools will, including in New Orleans. (A proposal to let low-income students nationwide use federal vouchers toward private school tuition was defeated in the Senate in July.) That raises another problem: Since the vouchers often go to students from the lowest-performing public schools, some arrive as much as two and three years behind grade level, Catholic school principals say, threatening to drag down those high average test scores and success rates.

Across New Orleans, in the Gentilly district, St. Leo the Great School Principal Carmel Mire remembers knocking on doors to rebuild enrollment after Hurricane Katrina. Reopened with 180 students, the school is now up to 265, many of them in Louisiana’s Student Scholarship for Educational Excellence voucher program for students from the very lowest-performing public schools.

“That’s how we’re keeping them,” said Mire, a no-nonsense retired public-school teacher who wears a necklace that reads “NOLA,” as she hovers over a noisy playground full of children. The school has lost not only students, but four teachers this year alone to charter schools—one in the first week of classes.

“It’s challenging,” Mire said. “It is challenging.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Chronic Absences Hinder Young Learners

While too many students at all grade levels are regularly skipping school, many preschoolers and kindergarteners are missing nearly as much seat time as teenagers, according to a new report.

The lost learning time, particularly in the younger grades, translates into weaker math and reading skills that become long-term deficits for students even years down the road, according to the new report from Attendance Works, a national advocacy organization, and the nonprofit Healthy Schools Campaign.

(Those findings are consistent with a recent study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, which found that preschoolers who were chronically absent had weaker social-emotional development, and more trouble with basic academic skills later on, than their peers with better attendance.)

“Chronic absenteeism” is defined by the researchers as missing at least 10 percent of instructional time over the course of an academic year. That’s about 18 days in most districts. At the national level,  one in 10 kindergarten and first-graders are meeting that threshold, which amounts to a month of instructional days, according to the new report. The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University conservatively estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the nation’s K-12 population—5 million to 7.5 million students each year—are not attending school on a regular basis.

kids can’t learn when they’re not in school, historically chronic absenteeism hasn’t gotten much attention in the broader debate over how to improve outcomes for students. That’s beginning to change, in part thanks to some first-rate reporting on the issue, including by the Chicago Tribune and The Oregonian, among others. The Attendance Works report makes it clear: This is fertile territory for education reporters to explore not just as an investigative project, but in their daily coverage of the nation’s public schools.

At the same time, the report’s authors are careful to emphasize that this is a community problem, and not just a school problem, and the solutions will require significant effort by educators, families, and the students themselves. (New York City’s recent successes are one example.)

Among the key findings: Students of color and those from low-income families are more likely to miss school than their more affluent, white classmates. The absences for poor and minority students are often tied to health factors such as asthma, dental problems, learning disabilities, as well as emotional issues tied to trauma and community violence, according to the report. In the fourth and eighth grades, the widest gaps in attendance rates between poor students and their affluent peers were found in Connecticut, Hawaii, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

highlighted interventions to help remedy this situation:

The Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA) sends community health workers into children’s homes to teach parents how to eliminate mold, cockroach infestations and other suspected asthma triggers.  LBACA reports that nearly three-quarters of children who missed school before enrolling in its program had not missed school at the six-month follow-up.

One key issue to consider when it comes to absenteeism is how little national data exists on how frequently kids—from all socioeconomic and racial groups—are skipping class, and whether those absences are considered “excused” or “unexcused” by the schools.

Up to now, researchers have relied on smaller studies and gleaning information from schools, districts, and states. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given to a representative sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students, also asks them to report how often they missed school in the prior 30 days, and Attendance Works has used that data in its reports.

From The Washington Post’s coverage Tuesday:

Students who take the NAEP are asked to report how often they were absent in the month before they took the exam. Nationally, black and Latino students are more likely than white students to report being absent three or more times in that month, and poor children are more likely to be absent frequently than affluent children.

A handful of states—including California, Hawaii, New Jersey and Oregon—require schools to report chronic absenteeism, and use that data as an accountability-performance measure. But most districts track only “average daily attendance” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for schools to be at 95 percent or better. That can paint a falsely rosy picture, said Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works.

“At 95 percent you can easily have 20 percent of your kids chronically absent,” she said. “It just tells you how many kids show up every day … It doesn’t tell you how many kids are absent so often they’re academically at risk.”

Researchers and attendance advocates will be getting some help—for the first time, the federal Office of Civil Rights has told school districts to report how many of their students missed at least 15 instructional days each academic year. The first report is due out this spring.