Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 7: The Transfer System as a Factor in Non-Attendance

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Quite distinct from the question of irregular attendance of children enrolled on the books of the school and under the supervision of the school authorities is the problem of the children who are not enrolled at all and who have successfully escaped the notice of the teacher, principal, and truant officer. There are at least three groups of such children: (1) the children of newly arrived immigrants who in some cases remain unknown to the school authorities for a considerable period after their arrival; (2) the children in families that have moved to Chicago from the country or from some other city and have found it more convenient, pending discovery, to keep one or more of the children at home than to enter them in school; (3) the children who take transfers from one school and then delay enrolling or fail to enrol at all in the new school. Only this last group will be considered in this chapter.

The transfer problem involves irregularity of attendance as well as a wholesale escape from school, and statistics regarding the amount of time lost through lack of supervision of transferred children should be considered in connection with other statistics of absence. An effort was made to obtain, if possible, the necessary data for making a definite statement regarding the amount of schooling lost through a failure to present transfers promptly.

No statistics on this subject could he obtained, and it was necessary to follow the transferred children from one school to another in order to compare the dates of leaving the old school with the date of enrolment at the new school. The names and addresses of the children to whom transfers had been issued

(102) were obtained from the nine selected elementary schools already discussed. From these schools, the Skinner, Jackson, Holden, Kosciuszko, Thomas, Tennyson, Keith, Moseley, and Jones, representing as has been shown an enrolment of 10, 120, or 4 per cent of the public elementary school population, and an average daily attendance Of 7,397,[1] the names and the addresses Of 770 children to whom transfer slips had been issued were secured. Of these 700, 652 or 85 per cent were apparently transferred to other public schools, and 118 or 15 per cent to various parochial schools. These 770 slips represent only a small proportion of the total number of transfers issued, since the record books, as has been indicated, were in many cases carelessly kept. Moreover, many of the children who were given transfers could not be traced, since several of the schools kept no record either of the new school or of the new address to which the child was going and merely marked the child " transferred."[2] This seemed to be particularly true of transfers from

(103) public to parochial schools. Transfers of this sort have been of frequent occurrence in recent years in Chicago, and if the children who ask for transfers because they are going to parochial schools are not followed up, there is an opportunity for a considerable amount of absence from school between the two enrolments.

After the transfer slips had been obtained, each slip was taken to the new school named, and the record of the child's entrance was examined to ascertain the date of re-enrolment. It was possible, however, to trace only 574 Of the 770 children who had "taken transfers," leaving 196 children for whom no information was secured.

It is not probable that all these 196 "lost" children failed to re-enter school; indeed some may have entered promptly the school to which they were transferred; but if so, there was no

(104) record of the fact, nor could the child be found by searching every classroom. The principals differed greatly in their willingness to assist in this search. Some inquired in every room, while others would do nothing more than examine the record and try to recall the child's name. In one school to which seventeen children had been transferred only three of them could be found. In a number of cases where the children were traced, they were found in a different school from that to which the transfer had been issued. In some cases, the child had, however, entered the school that was nearest to the new address to which the family had moved. In these cases, of course the principal had issued a transfer to the wrong school.

There seemed to be a great slackness in the dating of the transfer records. In a considerable number of cases the dates given fell on Saturday or Sunday, and in some cases the child was recorded as continuing to attend for periods of from one to twenty days after the date given as the date of transfer.

Similar slackness was of course found in entering the facts concerning the child's entrance at the new school. That is, a system which is careless about children who go will be equally careless about the children who come. The date recorded as the date of entrance was often the first of the month or the first of the week, sometimes Sunday. Sometimes the recorded date of entering one school antedated the date of leaving the other school. This might be explained by the child's attempting to make the transfer without complying with the formalities. In 51 cases (31 among the 481 children traced to public schools, and 20 among the 93 traced to parochial schools) the record of date of entrance was so inaccurate that no estimate of the time lost by the transfer could be made.

The significance of these facts is of course far greater than appears on the surface. No business concern would tolerate a system of bookkeeping that left important facts to be hunted out of a mass of unclassified material, and that made it impos-

(105) -sible to tell where certain of its raw material, its money or its output, had been during a considerable time, and that left from a quarter to two-thirds quite unaccounted for. Nor would a business concern, working with delicate or valuable material, employing many highly paid skilled workers and especially trained foremen, do without stenographers or bookkeepers, relying instead on the reports of the individual workers and an occasional gathering together and classifying of the facts of these reports. The community will surely come to realize that it is as important for it to know what becomes of its children as for manufacturers to know about their raw materials in process of manufacture.

The transfer system is complicated by the fact that children may go not only from one school to another, but from one school system to an entirely different one. The issuing of transfers between public and parochial schools, which are under quite distinct management, creates a serious problem. Many children are said to leave the public for the parochial school without obtaining transfers. Principals said that they gave transfers to parochial schools and got none from them. On the other hand, sisters superior complained that while they gave transfers to public schools the public schools either failed or refused to recognize them in the same way. And there seems to be ground for complaint on both sides. In tracing children who took transfers from public schools, it appeared that the children who went from the public to the parochial school lost a larger number of school days than those who went from one public school to another. That is, it seemed in general to be true that an unduly large proportion of long absences occurred in transfers from public to parochial schools, the children feeling no doubt greater security from detection in passing from one school authority to another.

It is not intended to suggest that no attention is given the subject of transfers by the Department of Compulsory

(106) Education. The published reports of the department have given each year since the school year 19o6-7 the number of cases of transferred children investigated by the department, and there has been a very considerable increase in the number of such investigations since our inquiry was begun. The reports of the department show, for example, the number of "transfer cards" investigated as follows: 942 in the school year 1906-7; 343 in 1907-8; 362 in 1908-9; 243 in 1909-10; 478 in 1910-11; 735 in 1911-12; 613 in 1912-13; and 1,325 in 1913-14. Unfortunately the reports of the Board of Education have never published the total number of transfers issued, so the proportionate number investigated cannot be determined.

In spite of the difficulties encountered in tracing transfer slips and in spite of imperfections of the school records, it seemed possible to ascertain the time lost by 485 transferred children between leaving the old school and entering the new school. In Table V is given the number of days lost between the recorded date of transfer from one school and the date of admittance to the other. Where the date of entrance was the same as the date of transfer or the school day next following, the child was counted as having made the transfer without losing any school days. In some cases where the child was traced the records were obviously inaccurate and were therefore discarded.

From this table it appears, as it should, that the largest single groups presented their transfers promptly and entered the second school without loss of time. Out of the 485, however, whose records were obtained, 250 lost one or more days, 13.5 lost more than three days while 91 lost more than a week, 62 lost more than two weeks, 45 more than three weeks, 35 lost four whole weeks or more. There were, of course, some extreme cases, for the children in the last group lost from six to thirty-two weeks of school. It must not be overlooked that these numbers represent the recorded losses by transfers

(107) from nine schools, representing about 4 per cent of the city's enrolment. This table does not include the lost children who could not be traced at all, nor those whose records were too inaccurate to be used.

School Days Lost A. Number and Percentages School Days Lost B. Cumulative numbers and Percentage
Children Transferred Children Transferred
Number Percentage Number Percentage
None 235 48 More than 5 weeks 23 5
1 to 3 days 115 24 More than 4 weeks 35 7
4 to 5 days 44 9 More than 3 weeks 45 9
6 to 10 days 29 6 More than 2 weeks 62 13
11 to 15 days 17 3 More than 1 weeks 91 19
16 to 20 days 10 2 More than 3 days 135 28
21 to 25 days 12 3 1 days or more 250 52
More than 25 days 23 5 No time 235 48
     Total 485* 100      Total 485* 100

* Out of the total of 770 transfers, 285 are not included in this table because the child's record could not be accurately traced.

The ages of the children transferred showed that the children of compulsory school age were more prompt in reporting when they changed schools than the children under seven. For example, an examination of the slips showed that only 52 per cent of those of compulsory school age lost time while transferring, while 69 per cent of the younger ones failed to make immediate connections. Parents know that the little children are not compelled to attend; and slight considerations of family inconvenience are enough to keep the young children at home. The disturbance of moving and settling even very simple

(108) household goods in a new place would often be more than a sufficient excuse.

No system of recording, however careful, would reveal the real significance of this loss to the children; for, as has been said, there is no limit placed on the number of transfers that can be made in a school year. Change in school does not of course always mean change in the neighborhood. The possibility of leaving the public for the parochial school and again returning or passing on to another is always present. Only by referring to the actual experience of the children can the waste in the child's life and in the use of educational resources be understood. From the following histories some idea can be obtained of the inaccuracy of the records and the wandering on the part of individual children:[1]

Frank D_____ was recorded as leaving the A_____ School January 3 on transfer to the C_____ School. The records in the C_____ School put his entrance as April 6, apparently after sixty-four days of school were missed. He stayed six days; his family moved again and, on April 17, left to return to the A_____ School. He seems to have arrived there May 2, missing eleven days.

Charles I_____ was transferred from the B_____ to the K_____ School, September 4, the first day of school. There is, however, no record of his entering there until the beginning of the following school year. The question arises whether he entered without being recorded-"slipped in"-, whether he went to some other school and not the one to which the transfer was made out, or whether he was out of school all the year. The second is probably the case, or possibly the first, but we lack the means of proof.

Arthur Z_____ left the P_____ for the S_____ School, January 16, there is no record of his entrance in the S_____ until the following September.

An interesting case was that of Mary I_____, aged twelve, whom a nurse brought into the office of the R_____ School, saying

(109) that the girl had been loafing and staying at home, and so she herself decided to bring her in. When Mary's attendance record was looked up, it was found that on September 5 she was living on Jackson Boulevard and had started in at the R_____ School in the third grade. On November 4 she took a transfer to the T_____ School because she was moving to Ogden Avenue. She did not present this transfer, and while living there did not, according to her own story, attend any school. In January her mother moved again, and Mary re-entered the R_____ School, January 15. Her address this time was Monroe Street. On February 7 she left the R_____ School and took another vacation, because her mother had moved again, this time to Morgan Street. This vacation lasted until Mary was found at home by the nurse and brought back into the R_____ School in March.

Austin C_____ was transferred from the A_____ to the B_____ School, December 21. There is no record there of his entry, but he claims that he was in attendance there and the principal says that he may have slipped in. In the fall of the following year he was once more back in the A_____ School.

William R_____ was recorded in the attendance books of the I- School as transferred to the J_____ School, School, September 27. He was not recorded in the J_____ School. His sister in the I_____ School was seen and said that he went to the J_____ without a transfer on March 11, and not September 27, as in the attendance books. If this were the case, and, since records in the attendance books were sometimes all the material available, especially when not of the current year, it might be that some other children in a similar way were counted as absent for a more or less considerable period when they had not left school.

William A_____ came from the I____ School and entered the S_____ School in September. He was there until March 21, when he entered a third school, the K_____ School, where he stayed form March 22 to May 11. He then went back to the S_____ where he was registered from June 1 to the end of the school year.

Ethel B_____ left the S_____ School on transfer to St. a parochial school, on December 5. There was no record of her

(110) enrolment there. She returned to the S_____ School February 28. It was learned that the child was often kept at home by her mother to help, and that the case had been referred to the truant officer.

George Y_____, eleven years old, is recorded as in the X_____ School from the opening of school in September to March 14, when he went to the S_____ School, where according to the records he remained from March 15 to March 22. But he was also on the records of the X_____ School from March 27 to April 14, when he is marked as leaving to go to the S_____ School. On May 22, he left the S_____ School without a transfer, and no record was found of his attending either school until September of the following year, when he was again entered at the X_____ School. If the S_____ School, as is probable, omitted to record an actual change between March 15 and March 22, which is down on the books of the X_____ School, we find his attendance record as follows: twenty-six weeks from September to March 14, in the X_____ School; change to the S_____ School, with no time lost; nine days at the most here; returned to the X_____ School, where he stayed not more than fourteen days; a change again to the S_____ School, stayed twenty-one days here at most and then left and either was out of school the remaining twenty-four days or changed his program and went to a third school; back in the fall at the X_____ School, where he started the previous year.

Joseph Z_____ was in the I_____ School September io to October 17, when he left on transfer to the J_____ School. There is no record of his entering there until September of the following year. On September 15, he left the J_____ School without a transfer, and the principal did not know where he was.

Agnes M_____ left the B_____ School for the A_____ School in March, but failed to enter the latter school. The investigator heard that she had gone to the E_____ district and had not entered any school, although she would not be fourteen until November. At the time of the inquiry she was at work. She was fourteen then but was thought to have begun working illegally while she was under age.

Henry W_____ left the H_____ School for the A_____ School March 15. At the A_____ School he is recorded as having entered

(111) from the M_____ School the previous October, but there is no record of his arrival from the H_____ School, from which he was transferred. The M_____ School has no obtainable record of him.

William X_____ is recorded as entering the A_____ School September 8, but there is no record showing from what school he came. The H_____ School records him as leaving there March 15, and the M_____ School records him as entering May 15 and leaving June 10, but does not say for what school.

Irene Z_____ left the I_____ School October 19, entered the K_____ School November 7, and left the K_____ School January 10. There is no record of where she was going. Stanley Z_____, her brother, entered the K_____ School October 18, and left according to the records on December 28, although that date falls in the Christmas vacation. He entered a parochial school, the St. _____, on January 19.

These cases are cited as interesting ones for purposes of illustration. Of many children about whom inquiry was made the principal would supplement the records by saying, "He entered on such a day and stayed only a little while," or, "He was here only three weeks." In spite of much persistent effort some children were not traced at all and others had such doubtful or conflicting records as to be of small value except to show the confusion that occurs. For example, a child might be found registered in three schools simultaneously and changing his attendance from one to another to escape the truant officer, or a child might be marked absent on the records of one school while he was in fact attending another. These illustrations serve to show not only the time lost but something of the waste in frequent transfers, with the inevitable changes in teachers and methods. These cases show, too, how imperfectly the records are kept in many 5chools both as to children arriving and children leaving, since it is impossible in some cases to trace the complete history of a child through one school year in the various schools to which he goes; and they show further how easily under the present transfer system a child may slip wholly out of sight.


Studies made of the records of 9 schools, led our investigators to go other schools, giving a view of the records of 99 of the elementary schools of Chicago. There is no reason to suppose that the conditions in the schools that were not visited differed essentially from those prevailing in the schools in which the records were examined, except for the fact that transfers are probably more numerous in the poorer sections of the city where the parents move more frequently.

Transfers should probably be made out in triplicate instead of in duplicate, one slip for the child, one for the principal's file, and one to be mailed to the central offices of the Board of Education. A transfer clerk in the central offices could then mail a reply card to the principal of the new school and if the child had failed to make a report at the new school, investigation could be begun at once. If the ideal of the compulsory education law is that a child is to attend 100 per cent of the school sessions and that every day is too valuable to be lost, then some system should be worked out which will eliminate every possibility of an avoidable absence. There is no intention here of insisting on any particular method of transfer-making or record-keeping; it is the purpose of this chapter rather to insist that some system be devised and enforced with thoroughness and zeal.

Just what the significance of these long absences may be is difficult to estimate. Attention has already been called to the fact that for these children their school life is their only chance for education, for quickening their interest, for preparing them for life in a modern industrial and social democracy. If they have all that the law contemplates for them-seven or nine years of regular school-life -- they are still young and untrained persons, poorly equipped to assume the burdens that await them. When they miss even a few days of school, the loss is real; when the loss amounts to weeks, it becomes serious and means not only loss of time and of opportunity which can never

(113) be made good to the child, but irregularity, uncertainty, and impaired efficiency in the schoolroom which the child is allowed to enter and to leave in this casual manner.

Surely a system can be worked out which shall see every child from the old to the new school without loss of time. No transfer should be issued until the teacher knows the child's new address and the new school can be correctly designated in the transfer slip. If the new address cannot be learned from the child, an inquiry might be made by the truant officer at the home before the child has lost any schooling, rather than after absences have occurred.


  1. Fifty-seventh Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago, p. 163.
  2. Of the 770 transfers followed, 563 were issued in one school year, and 207 in the succeeding year. The records of some of the schools cover the whole period of a year and a half, but in other schools the records of transfers were so poorly kept for part of the time as not to be usable. A more detailed statement regarding the method of obtaining information regarding transfers may be of interest. In the first place it was found to be very difficult to obtain the names of transferred children from the school records. The method of issuing transfers is not uniform in different schools, and there is also wide variation in the method of keeping records. In three out of the nine schools duplicate transfer slips were written, one for the child and one to be kept in the school office, and in two of these schools it was possible to obtain from the attendance books or registers additional information which made it possible to follow tip the children with greater success. For the six other schools no transfer duplicates were kept. In one of these schools the card catalogue register was used to ascertain the names and the addresses of transferred pupils and in the five remaining schools, no information was available except such as could be found in the registers or attendance books. These, it has already been said, are kept with varying degrees of care and accuracy. In one such school all the records were so clear and so apparently accurate that it seemed possible that all transfers were regularly recorded with the name of the school to which the child was to be transferred. Several other schools recorded children as "transferred," sometimes with, sometimes without, the name of the new school; sometimes with a "P.S." to signify parochial school, but making no mention of which one. The school from which the most complete set of duplicate slips was obtained gave clues mainly to public schools. It was said that "children go constantly back and forth" between this school and near-by parochial schools, but out of 138 transfers issued only six were to parochial schools, which seems a small number to represent this "constantly going back and forth" for a period of nearly a year (from January to December). Apparently no special records were kept of transfers or changes to parochial schools, and most of the children going to them were marked with a large L for left, or were simply dropped with a small 1 after three days' absence without any formality of transfer.

    It should he recalled that the authoritative records are not the attendance books and the register, but the teacher's "diary," described as "an undigested mass of details divided by room and day," so that, as an investigator said, "the only way to learn what you want to know, i. c., the date of entering or leaving and the grade, is to know the grade and the day on which the child came or went." With this information the entry might be found.
  3. In these transfer histories, as in other illustrative cases, letters and names are used which conceal the identity of schools and children.

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