Comptroller Stringer Audit: Massive DOE Breakdowns Endanger Homeless Students
March 15, 2018
19,000 – or 58 percent – of DOE’s homeless students were chronically absent from school in 2015-2016
DOE made no outreach efforts in 75 percent of the absences sampled in the audit
DOE’s inaction leaves thousands of homeless children at risk
Office of the New York City Comptroller
New York, NY – As New York City faces a record homeless crisis, with more than 33,000 children who reside in City shelters and are enrolled in its public schools, Comptroller Scott M. Stringer today announced a disturbing new audit that reveals massive breakdowns that could jeopardize the safety and welfare of homeless students. Among numerous systemic failures, the Department of Education fundamentally violates its own rules requiring outreach and follow-up efforts when homeless students are absent from school without advance notice. That inaction from the agency leaves the safety and welfare of thousands of vulnerable homeless students—who experience higher absentee and dropout rates than their peers—at risk.
Comptroller Stringer’s audit included an in-depth review of DOE’s records regarding 73 students that DOE identified as residing in homeless shelters and chronically absent during the 2015-2016 School Year. The audit found, among other things:
- The 73 students were absent a total of 3,037 days, an average of 41.6 days per student, during the 178-day school year.
- The 73 students were absent for one or more days, without advance notice, on 1,614 separate occasions.
- Although DOE rules require the schools to contact parents on the first day of each separate occasion when a student is absent without advance notice, its records showed that:
- DOE did not attempt to contact the students’ parents on the first day for 92 percent of the students’ 1,614 unscheduled absences; and
- DOE made no absence-related outreach efforts—on the first day or any other day—in no fewer than 1,210 instances when the 73 students were absent, failing to follow its own rules in 75 percent of the cases.
“This audit shows more than your typical set of agency breakdowns. These are heartbreaking government failures, because they affect young, vulnerable children. Schools are like second homes to so many families across the five boroughs, but for homeless children, the classroom is sometimes their only source of stability. The DOE is failing these kids. But instead of admitting obvious breakdowns in supporting a challenging population of students, the bureaucracy believes in defending the indefensible, and claiming it’s getting the job done, contrary to all the evidence. It has to change – lives are at stake,” Comptroller Stringer said. “We, as a City, are defined by how we support our most vulnerable. We need to be a school system that gives all children a chance to achieve their dreams. What we’ve shown in this audit is that the bureaucracy is letting kids down. The numbers here are deeply alarming, but behind each one of them is a vulnerable child who needs help from adults. Our kids deserve better.”
SYSTEMIC VIOLATIONS OF CHANCELLOR’S REGULATIONS
The NYCDOE’s Chancellor’s Regulation A-210 mandates that schools maintain a system for recognizing patterns of student absences and that they implement specific strategies for intervention to reduce the number of students who are chronically absent. Chancellor’s Regulations also require schools to follow up and intervene for unexcused lateness or early departures. Further, DOE specifies that “every effort must be made to telephone parents on the first day of a student’s absence.”
Yet, Comptroller Stringer’s new audit discovered that the DOE has shown a fundamental indifference to reaching out – at all – to homeless students when they’re consistently absent or late.
- In one case, a homeless third grader in the audit sample was absent on 41 of 178 school days and late on 17 days during the 2015-2016 School Year. For an 11-week period when the student was absent for 10 days, DOE had no evidence of any outreach efforts. DOE’s records regarding the remainder of the child’s absences reflected only two attempts to contact the student’s parent or guardian—one after the child’s 11th absence, and the other a “promotion-in-doubt letter” after the child had been absent 22 days of the school year. DOE appears to have offered no assistance to remedy the issues relating to the student’s absences.
- One homeless first grader in the sample, who attended two different schools during the 2015-2016 School Year, was absent on 55 of the 178 days for which the student was enrolled (70 percent attendance) and was late on 101 separate occasions. At the first school, the student was absent for six consecutive school days, but the evidence DOE provided showed that the school made no outreach effort until the fifth day—which consisted of merely sending a letter to the student’s parent stating that the student had been chronically absent during the prior school year. DOE had no evidence that the school attempted to contact the parent to ascertain the reason for the then-current absence. At the second school, the student was absent for 49 days, and, according to DOE records, the school waited 6 months, when the student had already accumulated 27 days of absence and 51 instances of lateness, before meeting with the student’s parents to discuss the attendance issues.
BREAKDOWNS AT DOE
The audit found that while DOE has established multiple protocols related to student absences that central staff and individual school employees are required to follow, it does not have adequate oversight mechanisms to ensure that they are actually followed. Comptroller Stringer’s audit found:
- Where evidence of outreach efforts exists, DOE’s methods are woefully inadequate because DOE does not require that the outreach efforts involve actual interaction with parents;
- Instead, as the audit shows, the DOE considers automated calling systems — “robo-calls,” — as well as mailed “promotion-in-doubt” letters that do not consistently mention attendance issues, as “outreach efforts” for students with excessive unexcused absences, in lieu of actual contact with a child’s parent or guardian;
- For three students in the audit sample, with absences ranging from 17 to 51 days, the only evidence of any kind of outreach was a form letter that was dropped in the mail;
- The sample of 73 students spanned 96 different schools, and the Comptroller’s Office reviewed attendance plans, which under the Chancellor’s Regulations, are required to be developed by each school. Yet, the audit discovered that 90 out of 96 schools did not identify strategies for boosting attendance among students with chronic absences and did not delineate a process to update contact information for the students and their families; and
- DOE’s records of homeless students were so disorganized that the list it provided to the Comptroller of students residing in shelter during the 2015-2016 School Year was incorrect. Further analysis revealed that 15 of the 73 students randomly selected as a sample did not reside in shelter during that period.
SYSTEMIC FAILURES IN SUPPORTING ATTENDANCE OF CHRONICALLY ABSENT STUDENTS
For students in shelters, DOE employs Family Assistants who are assigned to one or more shelters to work with homeless families and monitor the school attendance of their children. However, the audit showed that DOE has not demonstrated that its Family Assistants are making contact with the families whose children are chronically absent and late, specifically:
- DOE had no evidence that its Family Assistants conducted outreach for 1,357 – or 89 percent – of the 1,518 absences DOE recorded for the audit’s sample of 54 students who resided in shelters during the 2015-2016 School Year and were in need of intervention by a Family Assistant.
- For 29 of the 54 students in the audit sample with chronic attendance issues (54 percent), DOE Family Assistants made no outreach;
- The widespread Family Assistant outreach failures the audit uncovered is likely due, in large part, to insufficient staffing. Specifically, during the 2015-2016 School Year, DOE employed only 110 Family Assistants to oversee 32,243 school-aged children residing in shelters—an average of 293 children per Family Assistant.
ATS AND CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM
Chancellor’s Regulations stipulate that schools must conduct “407 investigations” to identify why students with significant attendance issues remain absent, and to ensure intervention measures have been utilized. That process begins when a “Form 407 Attendance Follow-up” is automatically initiated at the school level through DOE’s “Automate the Schools” – or ATS – system. Those “407 follow-ups” should be conducted whenever a student has been absent for 10 consecutive days, when a student with a prior “407 investigation” has been absent for 8 consecutive days or 15 aggregate days, and when a student in pre-k through 8th grade has been absent for 20 total days in a four-month span. However, the Comptroller’s audit found:
- During the 2015-2016 school year, ATS generated a total of 69 “Form 407 referrals” for 39 of our sampled students, each of which should have triggered a school-based investigation.
- While “407 investigations” are supposed to be automatically triggered by ATS, Comptroller Stringer found that the required investigations were never opened in 14 percent of the audit-sample cases.
- DOE failed to make any required outreach or intervention prior to opening 20 percent of the “407 investigations.”
- One student in our sample was absent for 20 school days between November 2015 and January 2016 before ATS generated a Form 407—on the second day after the student’s return to school. Further, the only evidence that the school staff spoke with the parent consisted of a Parent-Teacher conference on January 11, 2016, after the student had already been absent for 12 aggregate days. DOE made no effort, as required, to ascertain whether the child was safe and whether the family needed help on other days the student was absent.
The lack of outreach and documentation of follow-ups for chronically absent students carries significant consequences, especially when a student transfers schools. It can result in the new school not being fully aware of the student’s attendance history, living circumstances or the types of interventions needed to successfully return the student to the classroom.
In response to the alarming findings, Comptroller Stringer made 12 recommendations, including:
- DOE should enhance its procedures to ensure that school officials immediately make required outreach and intervention efforts when students are absent—and that those efforts are documented—in accordance with the Chancellor’s Regulations.
- DOE should ensure that its employees charged with oversight responsibilities for student attendance are familiar with their responsibilities.
- DOE should conduct a study to determine the appropriateness of its current caseloads for Family Assistants and whether its staffing levels are sufficient to enable them to effectively fulfill their job responsibilities.
- DOE should ensure that school officials immediately investigate all “Form 407 referrals” when required and that “Form 407s” are maintained at the students’ respective schools.
- DOE should amend its current process, particularly its automated process, to ensure that all students’ absence histories are fully recognized within the ATS system, absence patterns are properly identified, and “Form 407 referrals” are generated, regardless of whether the students have transferred between schools.
To view the full audit, please click here.