Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 8: A Detailed Study of Non-Attendance in Two Selected Schools

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Statistics relating to non-attendance are of little value unless accompanied by an inquiry into the causes of absence. In such an inquiry non-attendance should be investigated at the source; that is, by a careful inquiry made in the home in order to determine how far the causes may be removable and the resulting absences preventable.

Since it was impossible to make a detailed investigation of non-attendance in all the nine schools in which the attendance records were analyzed, two schools were selected for more intensive study, one on the West Side, predominantly Italian, but with Jewish children, and one on the Northwest Side, predominantly Polish. In each of these two schools after the study of attendance records had been completed, an attempt was made to visit the home of every child who was absent during a period of three weeks. The investigation was made in the West Side school in December and in the Northwest Side school in February, two winter months when the percentage of nonattendance runs high.[1] Table VI, which follows, shows the total enrolment in the two schools during these three weeks and the total number of children of different ages who were absent during this time.


Table VI. Total Enrolment and Number of Children in Different Age Groups "Absent" and "Not Absent" from Two Selected Elementary Schools During Three Weeks
Under Seven Seven to Fourteen Fourteen and Over Total
   Number 239 1,095 112 1,446
   Percentage 52 44 50 45
Not absent
   Number 217 1,417 112 1,746
   Percentage 48 56 50 55
Total 456 2,512 224 3,192

This table shows that out of 3,192 children enrolled in these two schools 1446, or 45 per cent, were absent at least one half-day during the three weeks, period of investigation.[2] Looking at the division into age groups, it appears that the children of compulsory school age were less irregular in attendance than the children below and above the compulsory age limits; thus only 44 per cent of the children between seven and fourteen years of age were absent in contrast with 52 per cent of the children under seven and 50 per cent of the children fourteen years of age and over.

Although an attempt was made to have all the absent children visited by the investigators, it was unfortunately not possible in either school to devise a system by which this could be accomplished. Home schedules were finally obtained for only 1,158 out of the 1,446 children shown by the teachers' attendance books to have been absent one or more times during the period of the investigation. This failure to visit the home

(116) of each child who was absent was due in part to the fact that the investigators were not able to secure the names and the addresses of all the absent children,[3] but in some cases in which the name and the address were obtained, the investigator in spite of repeated visits failed to find any member of the family at home; in other cases the death or illness of someone in the household made a visit unwise. For example, the prevalence of diphtheria in one neighborhood made it impossible to visit a number of children there.

The tables that have already been given merely show the number of children absent, but not the number of times individual children were absent. The following tables show the extent of non-attendance among the 1,158 children whose absences were investigated by visits to their homes. These tables, however, cover a longer period than the three weeks of home visiting; for the school records were available showing the number of days' absence since the beginning of the session, and the schedule used provided for the child's school attendance from the beginning of the school year down to the last day of the investigation. The table for the West Side school therefore covers four months, from the first Tuesday in September until the Christmas holidays. The table for the North Side school covers a period of six months, from the first Tuesday in September to the last week in February.

Since the investigation of these schools was made during different months, December and February, the number of 

(117) absences would, of course, be greater in the second school. The table that gives the number of half-days the children were absent is followed by a series of cumulative numbers and percentages that makes it possible to discuss the tables more conveniently. In the West Side school, during sixteen weeks, 6 per cent of the 816 absent children whose homes were visited were absent forty half-days or more; that is, they lost the equivalent of four weeks or more than four weeks of school, which was one-fourth of the time school had been in session; 12 per cent of the children were absent thirty half-days or more, that is, they lost three weeks or more, and 56 per cent lost at least two weeks. In the North Side school, where the records covered twenty-four weeks, 6 per cent of the 342 children visited lost sixty half-days or more, which in this school was likewise equivalent to one-fourth of the time school had been in session; 11 per cent lost the equivalent of five weeks' schooling; 18 per cent lost the equivalent of one month; 29 per cent of the children lost the equivalent of three weeks' schooling; and 50 per cent lost two weeks or more.

The question of whether or not girls are more irregular in attendance than boys is an interesting one. It has already been pointed out that in both schools the percentage of girls who were absent during the period of investigation was approximately the same as the percentage of boys who were absent during the same period, but Table VII shows that the girls were absent a larger number of half-days than were the boys. That is, in the West Side school 21 per cent of the girls and only 16 per cent of the boys were absent twenty-five or more half-days; 33 per rent of the girls and ?h per cent of the boys were absent twenty half-days or more; in the North Side school 24 per cent of the girls and only 14 per cent of the boys were absent forty half -days or more, 34 per cent of the girls and Only 25 per cent of the boys were absent thirty half-days and more. The reason

(118) for this greater degree of absence among the girls will be discussed in the chapter dealing with the causes of absence.

Table VII Number of Boys and Girls Absent Specified Number of Half Days
Number of Half-days Absent West Side School
(Period of 16 Weeks)
North Side School
(Period of 24 Weeks)
Boys Girls Both Boys Girls Both
1 and less than 5 105 76 181 19 7 26
5 and less than 10 82 95 177 36 21 57
10 and less than 15 46 50 96 32 15 47
15 and less than 20 76 47 123 25 16 41
20 and less than 25 40 48 88 24 16 40
25 and less than 30 21 35 56 22 11 33
30 and less than 40 24 22 46 23 14 37
40 and less than 50 11 9 20 13 12 25
50 and less than 60 5 10 15 5 10 15
60 and over 6 8 14 12 9 21
Total 416 400 816 211 131 342

Table VII Cumulative Percentages
West Side School
(Period of 16 Weeks)
North Side School
(Period of 24 Weeks)
Boys Girls Both Boys Girls Both
60 or more 1 2 2 6 7 6
50 or more 3 5 4 8 15 11
40 or more 5 7 6 14 24 18
30 or more 11 12 12 25 34 29
25 or more 16 21 18 36 43 38
20 or more 26 33 29 47 88 50
15 or more 44 45 44 59 67 62
10 or more 55 57 56 74 79 76
5 or more 75 81 78 91 95 92
Less than 5 25 19 22 9 5 8


It is, of course, important to know whether, when a child was absent several half-days, the absences were consecutive or irregular.[4] The long absence of several consecutive half-days is usually due to illness, whereas the irregular absences the occasional half-day or day of non-attendance--are much more likely to be unnecessary, founded on some trivial excuse.

(120) It is, however, difficult to classify the absences of a large number of children on this basis because the same child may belong in both the irregular and consecutive groups; that is, he may be absent for two weeks on account of illness and he may be absent one half-day each week for trivial reasons during the rest of the term. In general, however, it seemed to be true that the absences of most of the children were not the consecutive absences due to illness, but the irregular absences which indicate casual and unnecessary non-attendance.

A few other general questions relating to these non-attending or absent children should be answered before the causes of nonattendance are discussed. No study of truancy, non-attendance and the causes of absences can be of value without a clear understanding of family and neighborhood conditions. The first of the two schools studied is located in the heart of the West Side of Chicago in a ward that contained 91 people per acre at a time when the average population in the city as a whole was 20 people per acre; the second was in an almost equally crowded neighborhood with 82 people per acre. This overcrowding is, however, to be found in all the river wards, the wards of the lower West Side, lower North Side, and the Southwest Side in which the majority of the children of Chicago live.[5]


The two school neighborhoods studied were both immigrant neighborhoods, the one predominantly Italian and the other Polish. A very considerable number of children visited had themselves been born abroad, and the parents belonged almost entirely to the immigrant group. In Table VIII the place of birth of the head of the family is given-that of the father, ff alive, and of the mother, if the father was dead.

Table VIII Nativity of Parents of Non-Attending Children
A. West Side School
Place of Birth Number Percentage
Italy 510 63
Russia 144 18
Germany 27 3
Ireland 27 3
Other foreign countries 48 6
United States 51 7
     Total* 807 100

B. North Side School
Place of Birth Number Percentage
Poland 189 61
Germany 45 14
Austria-Hungary 25 8
Russia 25 8
Other foreign countries 5 2
United States 21 7
     Total* 310 100

*Nine cases on the West side and thirty-two on the North Side are omitted 
from the total because the place of birth of the parents was not given. 

The table shows that both in the West Side and in the North Side school only 7 per cent of the parents of the

(122) non-attending children were born in this country. The West Side school neighborhood is a homogeneous one with 63 per cent of the parents born in Italy; in the North Side district 61 per cent of the parents were Polish, and a very considerable number came from Russia and from the Slavic provinces of Austria.

In the second of these neighborhoods so large a proportion were Polish that it seemed best to designate Poland as if it were still a political unit. The term Poland in the table, therefore, covers all those who were born in Russian Poland, German Poland or Austrian Poland.

From whatever country they come, the parents of these children do not immediately become Americanized. They continue to be Italian or Polish. The language of the home is Italian or Polish,[6] and it is not English but these other languages that one hears spoken in the shops and on the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Living in a foreign colony, working with gangs of men of their own nationality, finding it easy to depend on the children as interpreters in emergencies, the parents find it extremely difficult to learn English and believe it to be quite unnecessary. Thus in the great majority of cases English is not spoken in

(123) the home because the parents, especially the mothers, have never learned to speak it with ease, if at all.[7]

The importance of this factor in the compulsory education situation cannot be overestimated. Coming from the most impoverished countries of Europe, where free education is unknown, the parents do not easily understand that school attendance is not only free but compulsory and that "compulsory attendance" means "regular attendance." It is easy for these parents to make sacrifices for the children to go to school, but not easy to grasp all at once the American standard of education, which means regular attendance for at least seven years, no matter how soon the elementary arts of reading and writing may be acquired.

In an attempt to understand the social background from which these non-attending children come, two other questions of importance arise; the first is the question of poverty in the home, and the second the question of how far non-attendance is caused by the fact that the mothers of these children are widows obliged to support their children by working away from home. In order to formulate some definite statement regarding the economic status of these families, they have been classified into four economic groups, which may be described as very poor, poor, comfortable, and very comfortable. No

(124) families that could be called wealthy were found among the absent children in either of these neighborhoods.

The investigators who visited the homes could not in a single visit obtain sufficiently accurate information regarding the earnings of the father or of others in the family to justify any attempt to classify these families on the basis of income. The dividing lines, then, between the economic groups were not determined by family earnings but by the standard of living, that is, by facts indicating the kind of house and the number of rooms in which the family lived, the condition of the home as to furnishings and cleanliness, the kind of work done by the father, and particularly by the fact of whether or not the mother had been obliged to become a supplementary wage-earner. That is, the information in the investigator's schedule did make it possible to say whether or not the family were living under conditions of poverty. We are concerned therefore in this classification merely with the home circumstances, and a family living in wretched conditions in a miserable home was called " poor " or " very poor " even if the wife said that her husband was at work at fairly good wages. The wages may have been saved or dissipated but, in either case, the condition of the home was for the time not profiting by the higher income.[8]

In general, the families called "very poor" were not normally self-sustaining families, and many of them were supported in part by some charitable organization. The families deserted by the father and those in which the father was dead or was an invalid were in this class. In other cases the family was "very poor" because the father was shiftless or drunken and kept the family impoverished through his neglect. On the other hand,

(125) the families called "poor" were normally self-sustaining; but the father, although able to keep up the home without charity and without making the wife and mother go outside of the home to become a wage-earner, did so with great difficulty. The men in the families classified as poor were for the most part unskilled laborers handicapped by their inability to speak English and subject to the largest hazards of unemployment. These families live under great pressure, and to keep the children supplied with proper shoes and clothing for school necessitates a constant struggle. The families classified as "comfortable" are those of artisans, tailors, or small shopkeepers who live in cheerful little homes and who are well above any fear of want. In the neighborhood of the West Side school there were in addition a few families who, while not at all wealthy, were considerably above the general standard of living in the neighborhood. These were liquor-dealers, proprietors of good stores in the neighborhood and, in a few cases, manufacturers. In general, their neighbors spoke of them as "fine" or "rich," and it seemed worth while to place them in a separate class, which might best be described as "very comfortable." One of these families, for example, kept a servant. Table IX shows the results of an attempted class:

Table IX Economic Status of Families of Non-Attending Children
Economic Group Number Percentage
Very Poor 153 14
Poor 724 64
Comfortable 241 21
Very Comfortable 11 1
     Total* 1,129 100

*In the case of 29 families the information was not sufficient 
  to justify their classification into economic groups.

(126) -fication on the basis of economic status as indicated by the conditions of the home.

This table shows that 78 per cent of the families visited were poor or very poor; that 21 per cent were in fairly comfortable circumstances, while a very few families (1 per cent) could be called very comfortable.

Passing on to the question of how many of these children belonged to widowed or deserted mothers, Table X shows that the great majority of children belong to normal family groups.

Table X. Parental Status of Non-Attending Children
Children having - Number Percentage
Both parents living 1,044 90
Father only 41 4
Mother only 68 6
Neither parent 5 ..*
     Total 1,158 100

*Percentage less than 1 per cent

This table indicates that 4 per cent of these children are motherless, 6 per cent come from fatherless families, and go per cent come from families in which both parents are living.

It is hardly necessary to point out that regular attendance at school is difficult for the children who are fatherless or motherless. In the poor home, the widowed mother who has to become a wage-earner is often obliged to leave her children to get dressed and to prepare their own breakfast and to be themselves responsible for getting to school on time. For the children who ate actually motherless, there is the same difficulty. If one pictures the miserable cold rooms, the difficulties of dressing in confusion and disorder, the lack of care and supervision, it is not strange that many of these children are irregular at school. In this connection it should not be overlooked that

(127) in these neighborhoods large families are the rule, and, to the inconveniences which may be due to poverty must be added the difficulties due to the pressure of a large number of children in the small, uncomfortable rooms. By way of summary, then, it may be said that there is a great deal of irregular or "casual" school attendance in these poor and crowded neighborhoods. In the next chapter an attempt will be made to present the immediate causes of non-attendance. The evil of irregular attendance can be cured only after it is understood; and it can be understood only by studying it at the source, that is, in the homes which are so largely responsible for it.


  1. The schools will be referred to as the " West Side " and " North Side schools. The investigation in the first was arried on for the three weeks preceding the Christmas holidays (fifteen school days). The investigation in the second school was carried on during three weeks in February. During these three weeks, however, there were two school holidays, February 12 and February 22, so that the investigation actually included only thirteen school days.
  2. The percentages of absence for girls and boys were almost precisely the same, and it did not seem worth while therefore to present the data for boys and girls separately.
  3. An attempt was made to have the different teachers send to the principal's office the names of the children who were absent each session. But although the great majority of teachers faithfully co-operated by sending in their lists regularly, a few teachers in each school were either careless or indifferent at times and failed to send in their reports. The investigators in the office assumed that no children were absent in the rooms from which no lists were sent, but it developed later that this was not always the case.
  4. Since, in general, irregularity is determined by the number of different periods the child is absent, it was decided to call those absences that occurred at three or more different times "irregular," and those that occurred at only one or two different periods "consecutive." This gave a definite basis of classification, but it was not entirely free from objections. The absences of some children were called consecutive merely because they were absent less than three times; some were called irregular that may have been a series of consecutive absences, that is, some of the children who were absent at three different periods may have been absent on each occasion for a number of consecutive days, but, although any one absence would have been properly called "consecutive," the series of absences falls correctly into the "irregular" class. In general, it is believed that the method of classification adopted tends to underestimate the factor of irregularity, The following table presents the results of a classification on this basis.
    Irregularity of Absences of Children in Two Selected Schools
    Absences West Side School
    (Period of 16 Weeks)
    North Side School
    (Period of 24 Weeks)
    Number Percentage Number Percentage
    Consecutive 212 26 27 8
    Irregular 604 74 315 92
    Total 816 100 342 100

    This table shows that, even with a very liberal standard of what may be called consecutive absences, a very small proportion belong in this group. In one school 74 per cent of the children and in the other 92 per cent of the children were absent at irregular intervals. Irregularity according to the method of classification adopted would increase with the period for which the statistics were gathered and is naturally greater in the school from which records were obtained for six months than in the school from which only four months' records were obtained.

  5. See an article, "The Housing Problem in Chicago," No. IV, by E. Abbott and S. P. Breckinridge, in the American Journal of Sociology, XVII, 2 ff., for the following data regarding the overcrowding in different Chicago wards. The federal census population statistics for 1910 "showed that in the city as a whole the average population per acre was 19.7. The Ninth and Tenth wards, which include the 'Ghetto' and the poor district about the lumber yards and canals, have a density Of 70 and 80. 8 per acre; the Nineteenth Ward, the crowded immigrant section in which Hull-House is situated, has 90 7 per acre; the Seventeenth Ward, a similarly poor and crowded tenement-house district, ha. a density of 97.4; .4, and the Sixteenth Ward, a Polish neighborhood, has a population averaging 81.5 per acre. It appears that the six most densely populated wards which have more than 70 people per acre are all on the West Side. Altogether in eighteen wards in different parts of the city the average number of people was forty or more per acre."
  6. The following table shows that English was the language spoken in less than one-fourth of the homes of the children whose absences were investigated.
    Among the foreign languages were, of course, Polish, Italian, Yiddish, Bohemian, Slovak, and German.
    Language of Home Number Percentage
    Foreign 767 70
    English 255 23
    Both foreign and English 79 7
         Total* 1,101 100

    *In 57 cases the language of the home was not given.

  7. The following table shows the number and percentage of parents who were able to speak English.
    Ability to Speak English Father Mother
    Number Percentage Number Percentage
    Able to Speak English 592 64 472 45
    Not able 334 36 587 55
         Total 926 100 1,059 100

    *In the case of 232 fathers and 99 mothers there was no report as to ability to speak English.

  8.  In an earlier study of the delinquent wards of the juvenile Court, when we were confronted by a similar problem of classification, a similar method was used. This is discussed in more detail in the chapter, "The Poor Child: The Problem of Poverty," in The Delinquent Child and the Home, by S. P. Breckinridge and E. Abbott.

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