Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 6: Extent of Truancy and Non-Attendance in Chicago: A Study of the Attendance Records of Nine Selected Schools

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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An account has already been given of the machinery used by the Department of Compulsory Education in Chicago, and the history of the statutes requiring this machinery has been traced. It is now possible, therefore, to discuss the problem of school attendance as it presents itself today in Chicago and in the suburban districts of Cook County. A study of non-attendance in some of the smaller towns, villages, and rural districts in the state would also be of great interest, but the scope of the present study has been necessarily restricted to Chicago and its suburbs.

The first question of interest in connection with such a problem relates to the extent of truancy and non-attendance. That is, in studying any social problem, it is important in the beginning to obtain if possible some definite facts regarding its size and importance.

It is difficult, however, to make an exact statement regarding the number of truant or non-attending children in Chicago during the past year or during any previous year. Statistics are published each year by the Department of Compulsory Education, showing the number of children reported to the truant officers, the number of children brought into the juvenile Court, and the number of parents who have been brought into the Municipal Court on the charge of violating the compulsory education law. But these statistics represent only the cases dealt with by the Department of Compulsory Education and not the total number of children or parents who have violated the law.


The largest group of children dealt with by the Department of Compulsory Education are those reported to the truant officers for investigation. Table I shows the number of children reported to the truant officers for investigation and the number of cases in which the children were returned to school from the time of the organization of the department in 1889 to the present time.

Table I. Number of Children Reported to Truant Officers for Investigation and Number Returned to School*
Year Investigations Returns
Public Schools Private Schools Total
1889-90 17,463 8,363 1,436 9,799
1890-91 20,325 10,581 673 11,254
1891-92 12,906 7,157 435 7,592
1892-93 14,683 6,024 1,714 7,738
1893-94 8,375 3,025 202 3,227
1894-95 11,878 4,052 365 4,417
1895-96 13,121 5,710 210 5,920
1896-97 13,990 6,482 80 6,562
1897-98 16,596 9,143 101 9,244
1898-99 17,195 9,027 67 9,094
1899-1900 31,593 16,490 291 16,781
1900-1901 33,684 18,621 178 18,799
1901-2 33,002 18,411 174 18,585
1902-3 33,617 17,134 136 17,270
1903-4 36,516 21,611 237 21,848
1904-5 See explanation in text 25,247 350 25,597
1905-6 ......† ......† †26,888
1906-07 30,014 1,052 31,066
1907-8 33,912 3,583 37,495
1908-9 38,122 8,362 46,484
1909-10 44,472 12,525 56,997
1910-11 48,770 12,601 61,371
1911-12 50,301 13,554 63,855‡
1912-13 ......† ......† 59,696‡
1913-14 46,769 11,295 58,064‡

* It should be noted that these figures show not the number of children but the number of "returns" to school. One child may have been returned several times.
† Corresponding figures not published.
‡ Does not include truants returned to school, since the returns to public and private schools are not given for absence due to truancy in these years.


Beginning with the year 1904-5, the reports of the department do not give separate figures for "investigations" and "returns." The totals from that date given in this table under returns are referred to in the reports of the department as "investigated and returned" or "returnable absences investigated." 

Obviously, the increase in the number of children for whom the services of the truant officer were needed should be compared with the increase in the total number of children attending school. Unfortunately, however, the reports of the department give, not the total number of children, but the number of returns made, and one child may have been returned several times. It seems unprofitable, therefore, to attempt to make a more exact comparison of the work of the department in different years by percentage increases, but attention should be called to the fact that the increase in truancy indicated by the increase in the number of children returned to school is probably not greater than it should be in comparison with the increase in the total number of children attending school.

Attention should be called to another point of importance indicated in the table-the sudden increase in the number of children from private schools, beginning in the year 1907-8. This increase is to be explained by the extension of the authority of the Department of Compulsory Education to the private schools in March, 1908, which will be discussed in a later chapter.[1]

For these last four years then, there have been each year about 60 , 000 cases of absent children referred to the truant officers for investigation and for the most part returned to school. How far the absences of these tens of thousands of children were justified, there is no way of determining. Certainly only a very small percentage were "wilful truants." Statistics published

(92) in the annual reports of the Board of Education throw further light on this point. Thus, for the year 1913-14, the last year for which a published report is available, there were in addition to the 58,064 children whose absences were investigated, 3,399 children who are described in the report as "wilful truants." Records of the juvenile Court show further that there were during the same year 496 boys and 3 girls brought into the juvenile Court, and the reports of the board show that 1,236 parents were warned by the Department of Compulsory Education that unless their children were promptly placed in school they would be prosecuted in the Municipal Court by the department because all other methods had failed to make them comply with the provisions of the compulsory attendance laws.

Although the number of truant children who have passed through the hands of the Department of Compulsory Education makes a large total, these figures represent only a small proportion of the truancy and non-attendance of any year. For there are always children absent without cause who are merely warned by the principal and not referred to a truant officer; there are also those children whose absence from school has escaped the notice of the school authorities entirely; and finally there are the children supposed by the principal and the teachers to be absent for what is considered sufficient cause or "a good excuse." As a matter of fact, in a large majority of cases, only a very careful investigation made in the home can show whether or not the child's absence is really necessary or not.

Children "excused for cause" are, of course, regarded by the school authorities, not as wilful truants, but as non-attending children absent for excusable reason-, and therefore not in need of discipline. But the effect of non-attendance is as disastrous to educational progress as is truancy itself, for whether the child's absence is sanctioned by the parents or is in opposition to their wishes, that is, whether the child is a non-attendant

(93) or a truant, the effect upon his school work is the same. He misses the school session) falls behind in his school work, and suffers the demoralizing consequences of irregularity. There will, of course, always be a residuum of non-attendance due to causes that cannot be removed. What is needed is that this residuum shall be an "irreducible minimum." A study of nonattendance and its causes is therefore a matter of supreme educational and social importance, in order that any absences beyond this irreducible minimum may be prevented. The vast, the overwhelming majority of all children receive their only education in the elementary schools, and much effort has been made to improve the work in these schools. The time that these children spend in the grades is too valuable to be lost; they have neither high school nor university beyond; they will never have any help from private teachers or from travel, and they will learn little from their environment; they have in most cases only uneducative and uninteresting work before them, and if they do not get from the school an interest in reading or continued self-development, their educational loss is likely to have its further effect in a deterioration of character.

The effect of non-attendance can only be ascertained by carefully compiled statistics of absences. But in Chicago as in other cities, published school reports do not contain such statistics. "Average daily attendance" throws no light on this problem. What is needed is a table or series of tables showing the number of children who have been absent different periods of time varying from one day or one week to longer periods of time. Since tables of this sort are not now available, it seemed important to undertake a careful study of the attendance records of a few schools in the hope that statistics of nonattendance in a small number of selected schools might throw light on the whole problem of school attendance in Chicago.

In order to be able to formulate, if possible, some definite statement regarding the problem of non-attendance as distin-

(94) -guished from the more specialized problem of truancy, records of nine elementary schools in Chicago were analyzed. These schools were selected from different sections of the city and as far as possible from among different foreign colonies, because it was recognized that the problem of non-attendance might be greater in some groups than in others. All the districts selected, however, were in the crowded sections of the city, where the question of school attendance is of the utmost importance since absence from school represents loss of time which will never be made up in ways that are possible to children from more fortunate homes. In the well-to-do sections of the city, the question of attendance, while it may be a school problem, is not a social problem of importance as it is in the poor and congested neighborhoods.

The elementary schools selected for this study of records were the following: (1) the Jackson School, in the Nineteenth Ward on the West Side, predominantly Italian but with a considerable number of Russian-Jewish children; (2) the Skinner School, near a rooming-house district in the Eighteenth Ward on the West Side, in which there are many American children; (3) the Tennyson School, which is also on the West Side but in a more prosperous neighborhood, in which the children are chiefly Irish and American, (4) the Kosciuszko School, in the northwestern part of the city in a congested Polish territory; (5) the Holden School, on the South Side, in a neighborhood chiefly Lithuanian and Polish; (6) the Thomas School, on the North Side, which is predominantly German but which has many Polish children; (7) the Moseley School, in the so-called "black belt" on the South Side, with few children that are not colored; (8) the Keith School, which is also in a colored neighborhood but which also has a good many Irish, American, and German children; (9) the Jones School, in a downtown district which is largely Italian but in which a large variety of nationalities are represented.


Statistics of absences must, of course, be studied together with the total period of enrolment, since, obviously, a child who has been in a school for ten months has ten times as many opportunities for absence as the child who has been there only one month. It was necessary, therefore, to ascertain from the attendance books the number of months that each child had been on the books of the school, before attempting to collect data relating to absences. Table II shows for the nine selected schools the total number of children enrolled during the year and the number of months during which the different children were counted members of the school.

This table shows that the total enrolment of these schools for the entire year was 10,120 , and that the period of enrolment was accurately ascertained for 9,757 children. Of these, 4,863, or approximately 50 per cent, were in attendance during the ten months of the school session. The remaining half of the children were members of these schools for periods of varying length, from less than one month to nearly ten months, During the weeks or months when they were not counted enrolled members of these schools, these children may have escaped school entirely or they may have attended some other school. The latter alternative unquestionably applied to the great majority of the children who were enrolled less than ten months, and the following chapter, which deals with the transfer system, shows that during a single year many children attend several different schools, so that the period of enrolment in each is necessarily short. The next step, of course, was to ascertain the regularity of attendance during the period of enrolment. But since it was not possible to obtain the attendance records for the entire year for the children who were enrolled for a short period, and, since their records for a portion of the year would not be fairly comparable with the ten-month attendance records of other children, it was thought best to present the detailed statistics of absence, not for the entire 10, 120 enrolled children, but only


Table II. Number of Children Enrolled in Nine Selected Schools with Period of Enrolment*
Period of enrolment Boys Girls Total
Number Percentage
Ten months (entire school year) 2,524 2,339 4,863 50
Nine months and less than ten. 245 238 483 5
Eight months and less than nine 225 205 430 4
Seven months and less than eight 215 165 380 4
Six months and less than seven 236 190 426 4
Five months and less than six 307 269 576 6
Four months and less than five 199 158 357 4
Three months and less than four 254 198 452 5
Two months and less than three 286 225 511 5
One month and less than two 289 270 559 6
Less than one month 401 319 720 7
Total 5,181 4,576 9,757 100
Period of enrolment uncertain 189 174 363 .........
Total enrolment 5,370 4,750 10,120 .........

* A statement regarding the method of compiling data from the school records may be useful. In each school all attendance books for the year studied were collected front the different rooms and deposited in the principal's office during the process of compilation. The attendance record for the entire year was transcribed for each child who had been enrolled for any period whatever. It was found, however, to be a difficult task to get correct results because of the inaccuracy of some of the teachers' records. Different teachers keep their attendance books with varying degrees of accuracy, and some of them are so carelessly kept that it is a most tedious and laborious process to get accurate data from them. For example, on the third consecutive day on which a child is absent, the teacher is supposed to mark him left, designated by a capital "L," and to record his return with a capital "R." In some cases the child is never marked returned, although recorded absences at a later date show that he is again in school. In such a case, it is of course impossible to tell how long the child was absent unless the teacher can remember the date of his return, which is quite unlikely. In some books the writing was so slovenly that it was difficult to distinguish the capital "L" from the "T" for tardy. A small " F' is supposed to indicate that the child has been transferred to another room in the school; after the " 1 " the number of the room should follow. In certain cases the number was omitted, and no one of the other books gave a further record of the child; it was probable that the teacher used a small "l " she 1,..ld have used a capital " L. 1, 3 1 he teacher should mark absences tor each school session, so that 11 a child is absent the whole day there should be two marks on that date. Frequently in the midst of a long absence, evidently due to illness, there will be a day with only one mark. Or if the system of marking "L" on the third day of absence is followed, such a record as the following will be found: October 1, two absences; October 2, one absence; October 3, left obviously a failure to record an absence on the second. This statement, therefore, explains why it was necessary to include in the table 363 children whose "period of enrolment was uncertain."

(97) for the 4,863 children who were on the books of these nine schools for the entire school year.

In Table III the number of boys and girls who attended school for ten months are classified according to the number of half-days absent during the year. It is to be regretted that it was not possible to show how far the absences were consecutive and how far irregular, since a long consecutive absence is likely to mean an excusable illness, but the difficulties in the way of the presentation of such further details regarding these absences were insuperable.

Table III Attendance Record of Hald-Days' Absence of 2,524 Boys and 2,339 Girles Enrolled for Ten Months in Nine Selected Schools
None 90 4 91 4 181 4
1 and less than 5 226 9 177 8 403 8
5 and less than 10 281 11 243 10 524 11
10 and less than 20 518 20 467 20 985 20
20 and less than 30 424 17 413 18 837 17
30 and less than 40 327 13 266 11 593 12
40 and less than 50 210 8 199 9 409 9
50 and less than 60 121 5 151 7 272 6
60 and less than 70 91 4 71 3 162 3
70 and less than 80 71 3 67 2 138 3
80 half-days or more 165 6 194 8 359 7
Total 2,524 100 2,339 100 4,863 100

In studying this table it should not be forgotten that the 4,863 children whose attendance records are presented here were the most regular in attendance of all the 10,120 children enrolled in these nine schools. There is every reason to believe that attendance records for the remaining 5,257 children who are not enrolled for ten months would show a greater number

(98) of absences since the cases of failure to enrol or changes in enrolment are very frequently due to the same causes as irregularity of attendance after enrolment.

Table III shows that the percentage of absences made by boys and girls corresponds so closely that it is not necessary to discuss them separately. The column of totals shows that go boys and 91 girls, 4 per cent of those children who were on the school roll for ten months, did not lose a single half-day of school during the entire year.

Table IV. Cumulative Numbers and Percentages Showing Absences in the Equivalent of Weeks
8 weeks or more 7 weeks or more 6 weeks or more 5 weeks or more 4 weeks or more 3 weeks or more 2 weeks or more 1 weeks or more less than 1 week
Number 359 497 659 931 1,340 1,933 2,770 3,755 1,108
Percentage 7 10 13 19 28 40 57 77 23

Table IV has been prepared from the column of totals in Table III because the cumulative numbers and percentages give a convenient summary of the number of absences. In this table it appears that 77 per cent, or more than three-fourths of the children who were enrolled for ten months, were absent ten half-days, the equivalent of one week, or more; that more than half of these 4,863 children lost the equivalent of two weeks ' schooling or more; that 40 per cent were absent the equivalent of three weeks or more; that 28 Per Cent were absent the equivalent of four weeks or more and lost at least a full month's work; that 7 per cent lost the equivalent of two months' schooling.

If the other children who were enrolled for shorter periods of time were no more irregular than the 4,863 whose absences

(99) appear in Table III, it would mean that out of the 10,120 boys and girls attending these nine schools, only about 375 were not absent at all and that over 5,700 children were absent more than twenty half-days, and that more than 2,700 had lost a month or more of schooling during the year.

The nine schools, in which attendance records were studied, furnished about 4 per cent of the total enrolment of children in public elementary schools in Chicago. They furnished approximately 5 per cent of the total number of children brought into court during the year as truants or schoolroom incorrigibles. It is, of course, not easy to determine how far the attendance records of these selected schools may be said to furnish a random sample of the records of all the elementary schools in the city and whether or not they may be used as a basis for estimating the extent of non-attendance in the whole city. While attendance in these schools in the poorer districts of the city is perhaps more irregular than in other parts of Chicago, it must not be forgotten that the great majority of children in most of our public schools come from similarly poor and congested neighborhoods. (It may also be recalled again that these percentages of absence are based on the attendance records of the children who were probably most regular in attendance throughout the year.)

The total enrolment in public elementary schools for the entire school year was 257,421. If the attendance records of the children presented in Table IV be accepted as typical of the whole city, then there were in the public elementary schools in Chicago in round numbers 19,000 children who were absent eighty half-days or more, and who lost therefore the equivalent of two months' schooling during the year, 35,000 who lost six weeks or more; 49,300 who lost five weeks or more; 71,000 who lost a month or more; 102,400 children who were absent the equivalent of three weeks or more; and 146,800 children who lost at least a fortnight's schooling. 


General tables such as have been presented do not throw much light on the more difficult aspects of the problem of school attendance. One wishes to know the ages and the grades of the absent children, the kind of homes they come from, and above all the excuses given for their absence. Since information with regard to the last two questions could be obtained only by a visit to the homes of absent children, a more detailed investigation of attendance records as well as of the causes of absence was undertaken for two selected schools. Before considering these subjects, however, it seems worth while to examine an important factor in the non-attendance problem that is directly connected with the question of attendance statistics, the system by which children are transferred from one public school to another and back and forth from public to parochial schools.


  1. See chap. x, "The Habitual Truant and the Schoolroom Incorrigible," p. 154.

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