Wednesday, June 15, 2005


One of the reasons suburban parents don’t want their schools swallowed up by the Omaha Public Schools is that they’re afraid the “culture” at OPS will infect their own school cultures, for the worse.

One crucial difference between OPS and the ‘burbs is in an elementary measure of K-12 school effectiveness: school attendance rates. Nearly twice as many kids are absent from OPS classrooms as from the ones in the adjacent suburban districts OPS would like to take over.

According to the Nebraska Department of Education, OPS had an absentee rate of 9.5% in the last school year for which figures are available, vs. 4.9% for Ralston, 4.3% for Millard and 4.2% for Elkhorn. The statewide average, if you leave out OPS’ numbers, is 4.5%. With it, it’s 5.3%.

Figures were compiled from annual financial report data on
http://ess.nde.state.ne.us, subtracting each district’s “average daily attendance” from its “average daily membership,” or enrollment, totals.

On the average school day during the 2003-04 school year, 4,172 kids were enrolled in OPS, but did not attend school. Note that Nebraska taxpayers pay through state aid for all students who are enrolled in a district, whether they actually attend school or not.

So every day, that’s 4,172 OPS kids we’re paying for who aren’t receiving the educations we’re trying to provide for them. And my OPS sources say that, on Mondays and Fridays, there are so many kids missing from those classrooms you could shoot a cannon through some OPS buildings and not hit anyone.

Yet our tax dollars supporting the massive operational spending that goes on in that district are being spent, anyway.

Long before we start tussling over whether OPS should get to take over those suburban districts, we need to explore why so many children – whose educations we’re paying for, and many if not most of whom are low-income and minority kids – elect NOT to be in school from day to day. They can’t ALL be sick.

Maybe, as my OPS sources say, it’s the perception of chronic racism, low morale, low expectations, and negativity that sometimes pervades a big social-service organizations such as an urban school district.

How to fix it: make school so good that the kids are enthusiastic about wanting to come to school.

If OPS can manage that glaring problem, maybe – just maybe – they would be deemed fit to take on more responsibility. But ‘til they get their own house in order, fuhgeddaboudit.



Q. What one single thing could we do to help low-income kids do better in school?

It’s so simple, it’s scary. The most effective thing public schools can do to help disadvantaged and minority kids is to encourage them to improve their school attendance rates.

Absenteeism is a strong correlate to school failure and low test scores, more so than factors such as spending per pupil, teacher qualifications and experience, rates of poverty among pupils, lack of political access by parents, innate cognitive ability, and internal features of the school, including curriculum.

Bottom line: you’ve got to be there to learn anything, especially in an incremental subject such as math. And if you switch schools, you lose about a year’s worth of academic achievement. So poor attendance and family mobility are extremely destructive factors.

Large urban districts with low test scores commonly have absenteeism rates more than twice that of surrounding suburban schools. It’s a key reason why small schools are more effective than large ones – because the students feel that others care about them and miss them when they’re gone.

Improving attendance is much more important than other factors that dampen test scores, according to a study of recent test score data from Minnesota. Researchers concluded, for example, that “school poverty impacts are small and often statistically insignificant.”

That finding is striking, since it was published in the Journal of Negro Education (Winter 2004), yet reveals as false one of the pillars of liberal philosophy: that poor kids do poorly in school because they are poor, and pouring more money into schools will “fix” them.

Instead, the researchers call for “greater efforts by public schools to increase school attendance, especially among minority students,” as well as measures to limit frequency of school changes, expanding gifted and talented programs for minority students, and sharply reducing inappropriate placements of minority youth in special education programs.

Homework: Article, “Effects of School Poverty on Racial Gaps in Test Scores: The Case of the Minnesota Basic Standards Tests,”

It's not OPS's fault that they have old schools in bad neighborhoods. It's not OPS fault that they are forced to try and teach most of the areas ESL students, it's not OPS's fault that they have a lot of students with a lower economic backgrounds. It's all of Omaha's responsibility to help - consolidate!
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