Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Appendix 2: Extracts from Publications of the Board of Education Relating to the Compulsory Education Problem in Chicago

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Extracts from: (1) Report of Superintendent of Schools, Chicago, 1856: Uneducated Children of Chicago; (2) ibid., 1857: The Evil of Irregular Attendance; (3) ibid., 1864-65: Truancy-Its Extent and Causes; (4) Thirty-fourth Annual Report, The Board of Education, Chicago,1887-88: Idle Boys upon the Streets.

(1) Uneducated Children of Chicago (Extract from the Third Annual Report of Superintendent of Public Schools of Chicago for the Year 18.56, pp. 4-11)

While we may congratulate ourselves upon the liberal provision made by our city for the education of her children, and I trust also upon the present healthy condition of the schools, we cannot conceal the fact that a large number of children are growing up in our midst, without ever availing themselves of the means provided for their instruction. Most of this class of children are constant and punctual in their attendance upon the various schools of poverty and crime; and though never found within the walls of a school house, it is to be feared their education will prove the most expensive that is furnished to any class of our children.

It has seemed to me a matter of importance, at this period in the history of the schools, to ascertain as nearly as possible the number of children in our midst of suitable age to attend school, who are entirely destitute of school instruction. It appears from the recent census of the city, that the number of children in Chicago between the ages of five and fifteen years, is about 17,100. I take the period between five and fifteen years, because these are generally regarded as the limits of the school age, though many pupils remain in school till the age of eighteen or twenty. Our problem, then, is to account

(390) for the school instruction of these 17,100 children who are of suitable age to attend school.

The whole number of pupils in attendance upon the public schools of the city at any time during the year 1356, after deducting those over fifteen, was 8,306. This number taken from 17,100 leaves 8,794 still to be accounted for.

The census of the city affords no means of ascertaining the number of pupils instructed in the private schools; - but as it is impossible to arrive at any satisfactory solution of our question without this knowledge, I have taken measures to secure a thorough canvass of the city, for the purpose of obtaining it. The result shows that there are at the present time fifty-six private schools of various grades in the city, including the Industrial Schools and the Orphan Asylum, with an aggregate attendance Of 3,850 between the ages of five and fifteen. To find the whole number attending the private schools during the year, we must add to the number now enrolled, as nearly as can be ascertained, about 550, making in all 4,400. Taking this number from 8,794, we have yet remaining 4,394 children between five and fifteen, that have not during the year been found a single day in any school of the city, either public or private.

In settling the question, how many children are habitually absent from the schools who ought to be found in them, we must make some further reduction of this number. There are a few cases in which provision is made by parents for the instruction of their children at home. There is also a small number of children that are either physically or mentally incapacitated to attend school. Perhaps some allowance should be made for those who have obtained what may be regarded a respectable education, and left school before reaching the age of fifteen. It would probably be a high estimate to put the number embraced in all these classes at 1,000. No one would think of putting it higher than 1,394. But this number taken from 4,394, leaves at least 3,000 children in our city who are utterly destitute of school instruction or any equivalent for it.

This is no theoretical speculation. The facts I have adduced have been collected and revised with the utmost care. I leave out of account the fact that hundreds of those whose names are enrolled as members of the schools, attend less than a single month in the

(391) year, while hundreds of others are so irregular in their attendance that they can hardly be said to be benefited at all by the instruction they receive. Pupils embraced in these classes are ranked the same in my estimates as those who are punctual and regular in their attendance through the year. I would gladly present a different picture, but the facts will not possibly admit of it. The truth is demonstrable, that not less than 3,000 children in our city are destitute of all proper instruction during the period, which is to decide their future character and influence as citizens of a free Republic. This number is greater than the average attendance of the public schools during any month in the year!

The Superintendent of Public Schools in the city of Boston,[1] in a recent report, arrived at the very gratifying conclusion, "that there are not more, on an average, than 500 absentees from school, who deserve to be blamed for non-attendance." If Chicago compares unfavorably in this respect with some of the older cities, the difference is not to be ascribed to any lack of interest in the cause of public instruction, or reluctance to provide facilities for the improvement of the schools. The causes of this difference are mostly those, which are incident to the changing character and rapid increase of our population. It is true that the crowded condition of the public schools has had the effect to prevent a considerable number from entering them; but so rapid is the growth of the city, that rooms, which afford liberal accommodations for a school, when a new house is put under contract, become excessively crowded during the few months required for its erection. The distance of many families from any public school, is another serious obstacle to the attendance of children, especially those living in remote parts of the city.

But, while we may find in our peculiar circumstances an explanation of the causes which have led to this deplorable condition of so large a number of children, it would be suicidal for us to close our

(392) eyes to the magnitude of the evil and the fearful relation it bears to the future character and destiny of our city.

If it be asked, what can be done to reduce the number of absentees from the schools, the first and most natural step to be taken, is to furnish the community with information in respect to the nature and extent of the evil that exists, and this is the main object which I have had in view, in presenting the foregoing facts. If the citizens of Chicago could be brought fully to realize that these 3,000 children, growing up in ignorance, and many of them in want and crime, are a dangerous element in our social compact, a thousand almost imperceptible influences would soon be brought to bear upon them, and more than a thousand children, now found in the streets or in haunts of vice, would soon be found in the public schools. The ingenuity of philanthropists would be tasked to devise means, by which this poisonous stream might be purified, before its deadly waters are mingled in the full, strong current of adult life.

By increasing the number of schools so as to furnish an adequate number of teachers, and a proper amount of room, and thus render the schools more efficient and attractive, we shall do much to increase the number in attendance. But when all general measures have been tried, as far as they can be brought to bear upon the case, it is to be feared that a large class of children will still be left to grow up in ignorance, unless some special means are adopted to bring them under the influence of school instruction.

(2) The Evil of Irregular Attendance (Fourth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of Chicago, 1857, pp. 42-49)

The evil of irregular attendance is one that has long engaged the attention of the Board of Education, and one that has hitherto baffled all the efforts that have been made for its removal. It is now universally regarded as the most dangerous evil that exists in connection. with the free school system.

Near the close of 1857, the Board adopted the following rule, which took effect on the first of January, 1858:

"Any scholar who shall be absent six half days in four consecutive weeks, without an excuse from the parent or guardian, given

(393) either in person or by written note, satisfying the teacher that the absences were caused by his own sickness or by sickness in the family, shall forfeit his seat in the school; and the teacher shall forthwith notify the parent and the Superintendent that the pupil is suspended. No pupil thus suspended shall be restored to school, till he has given satisfactory assurance of punctuality in the future and obtained permission from the Superintendent to return."

The propriety or impropriety of adopting such a rule, involves grave questions, which lie at the very foundation of our system of free schools.

That education should be free and universal, is now the prevailing sentiment of this nation. The primary basis on which the doctrine of free schools rests, is the safety of the State. Uneducated men and women are regarded as a dangerous element in a free Republic. There are, however, many who still look with distrust upon schools entirely free, and the number would be found to be much larger than it appears, if it were not for the odium of entertaining sentiments that are unpopular with the masses. Even among the ablest and most devoted friends of popular education, there are not wanting those who regard it as unwise to make our schools entirely free to children whose parents are able to contribute to their support. They believe that opportunities which cost nothing can never be fully appreciated, and that our schools can never rise to the highest order of excellence while those who enjoy their benefits do not put forth any direct effort to aid in sustaining them. The Hon. Henry Barnard, of Connecticut, one of the ablest and most devoted friends of education in the country, has long entertained this view of the subject. During the last year, an animated discussion on this question took place on New England ground, between Mr. Barnard and the Hon. George S. Boutwell, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

The friends of free schools have much to fear from the arguments that are based upon the irregular attendance of scholars, and the consequent waste of so large a portion of the funds that are provided for the support of the schools. If this waste was as apparent as it is real, a remedy in some form would long since have been demanded.


Let us take, for illustration, our own city. The average number of absences from all the Grammar and Primary Schools during the year, was more than one-fifth of the average number belonging to the schools. But if one-fifth of the children are always absent, there is an absolute loss of one-fifth of the expense of sustaining the schools, for it is obviously much easier to instruct any number of pupils who are punctual, than the same number that are habitually irregular in their attendance. The derangement of classes and the time required to bring up lost lessons, are always more than an equivalent for the time saved by any reduction of numbers that may be occasioned by absences. Here, then, is a positive loss to the city of more than S12,ooo during the year 857. In two years, this loss amounts to a sum sufficient to build one of our first class school houses.

But it is not the waste of money alone, that is sapping the foundations of our free school system. One of the principal objects in making the schools free and common to all classes, is to remove the danger of having an uneducated and vicious class of persons constantly growing up, to prey upon society. This object is of course in a great degree lost, if those whom the schools are desired to raise from vagrancy and ignorance, are to regard them with indifference and neglect.

In this city, as in others, there is a class of parents who seem to regard the public schools as convenient places, where they may send their children on days when they happen to have nothing else for them to do. The consequence is, that many children have been in the habit of attending school only one or two days in the week-in some instances not more than two or three days in a month; often enough to retard the progress of the class with which they were connected, but not often enough to derive any substantial benefit themselves.

But there is another evil connected with the irregular attendance of scholars, that is seriously affecting the interests of free schools. The absence of a portion of a class, retards the progress of all the rest. It is safe to say that in many of the classes in our schools, the advancement has not been more than two-thirds or three-fourths as great as it would have been if the pupils had been punctual in their attend-

(395) -ance. If all the members of a class were equally irregular, each pupil would suffer his own share of this loss. But the records of the schools show that more than one-half of the absences belong to less than one-fifth of the scholars. Here, then, is a most glaring injustice. Parents sometimes claim that they have a right to keep their children from school when they please, without stopping to consider that other parents, whose children are uniformly punctual, have also a right to expect that they will not be kept back in their classes by those who are habitually irregular.

Heretofore this right of the few to hinder the progress of the many, has been yielded; while the right of the many to advance without these impediments, has been disregarded. A large portion of the children that are taken from the public schools and placed under private instruction, are transferred from this cause; while many of the parents whose children still remain, have an abiding feeling that their rights are disregarded for the gratification of those who are indifferent to the education of their own children.

Every one at all conversant with our schools, is aware that most of the absences that occur, are occasioned by the carelessness and neglect of parents, and not by any real necessity.

If this evil is to continue unchecked, our schools can never reach a high standard of excellence, and many parents will contrive to send their children to private schools, rather than submit to the annoyance of having them classed with those who have no ambition to improve, and who are not willing to put forth the necessary effort to establish habits of punctuality.

On the other hand, if the rights of all shall be equally regarded, and an ordinary degree of regularity in attendance upon the schools shall be made a condition of membership, then may we expect that our schools will continue to advance, and become more and more worthy of the confidence of all classes in the community.

I have taken the liberty to present these views, because it is vain for its to close our eves against evils that threaten the stability of our noble system of public instruction. I believe that this system is destined to triumph, and that, in the future history of the country, the common schools will be entirely free. But of nothing do I feel more fully assured than this, that if the free school system is finally

(396) to prevail, it must be by reducing it to a rigidly economical basis, and by treating the rights of all with equal consideration.

It was with this view of the case, that the Board of Education adopted the rule requiring those who enter the public schools of this city, to attend with some degree of regularity. The rule has already accomplished twice as much in improving the standard of punctuality in our schools, as all previous agencies combined.

So far as I can learn, the rule has given general satisfaction. More than a hundred different parents have already applied in person to have their children restored to the seats that had been forfeited by irregular attendance, but I can recollect only a single instance in which a parent has made any special complaint of the rule itself, while in a large majority of cases, those whom I have seen have expressed themselves gratified with its adoption.

It is not the design of the rule to exclude from the schools any children whose parents put forth sufficient effort to secure an ordinary degree of punctuality; and even when a seat has been forfeited, the pupil is not necessarily deprived of the privileges of the school, except for a single day.

One of the most important advantages of the rule, is the opportunity it affords the Superintendent to confer with parents in regard to the interests of their children and of the schools.

Similar rules have already been adopted in St. Louis, Dubuque, Cincinnati, Hartford, New Haven, Worcester, and other cities; embracing the principle that habitual irregularity of attendance is a sufficient cause for depriving a pupil of his seat in school . . . . .

(3) Truancy-Its Extent and Causes (Extract from Eleventh Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago, 1864-65, Pp. 19-38)

Let our attention be turned, a moment, to the facts concerning those who are enrolled upon our School Records. We shall find the average number belonging, during any one month, about 90 per cent. of the whole number enrolled, and the average daily attendance only go per cent. of the average number belonging to the schools. From this we learn, first, that about 10 per cent. of the membership of our schools is changed each month; and, second, that 10 per cent.

(398) of the number belonging to the schools are absent every day. Could our schools all be visited, upon a day of average weather, only 13,500 of the 15,000 acutally (sic) belonging there, would be seen. Where are the remaining 1,500? Some are sick, and others are feigning sickness; some are watching by the sickbed of some other member of the family; some are supplying the places of others, whom necessity has sent from home; some are entertaining friends; some are preparing to entertain expected visitors, or to be entertained by inviting hosts-, some are idly dozing away time under the plea of resting from some unusual physical exertion, or are recovering from the fatigue some are moping attendant upon some unnecessary conviviality, about in their effort to execute an errand, trumped up as an excuse for absence; many are endeavoring to render earnestly proffered assistance to indulgent parents, who accept offers of help when it is not needed, rather than cross the wishes of their children; many are roaming the streets in search of enjoyment not found in books; while some are skulking about, shunning both parent and teacher, while they play truant. To all these forms of excuse, the children are agreed. But the whole truth is not yet told. Many who would gladly be in their places, are absent because of their parents' indifference or carelessness. Avarice, too, has had its influence in depriving the school room of happy faces, willing minds, and joyous hearts. The little earnings of the child on the one hand, and on the other hand the money saved, that would otherwise have gone to the purchase of books and necessary clothing to make the child comfortable at school, have had a more powerful influence through the father's pocket, than the earnest look and beseeching tone of the little child thirsting for knowledge, combined with the father's conviction of duty in regard to the mental and moral cultivation of his offspring. Many a child has been sacrificed, mentally and morally, as well as physically, to the pecuniary interest of the parent. Every effort should be made to secure the city against the inroads which avarice and carelessness are thus making upon her prosperity.

Were the evil of irregular attendance confined to any individuals, constituting 10 per cent. of the number belonging in school, it could be much more easily borne, and would prove less disastrous; but to make up the ten absentees each day, more than fifty out of each

(398) hundred are drawn upon during the month, and the fifty will be found more or less irregular, so that a majority of each school is, in reality, irregular in its attendance. To-day, ten are absent; to-morrow, five will return, and their places will be supplied by five who are present to-day, and upon some other day the ten of to-day will be found in their seats, but the seats of ten others will be vacant. Thus the school changes from day to day, classes are kept back on account of the slow progress of the irregular, and if it be urged that the majority should control the progress of the class, it will be found upon inquiry that the majority is irregular, and so does control.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Earnest and faithful as the teacher may be, he will yet fail to reach many cases of truancy. The parents' absence from home at the most important part of the day, the unwillingness of other parents to take any interest in the punctual attendance of their child; and the utter refusal of others, who encourage truancy in their children, to aid the teacher in his work, enforce the necessity of some other agency than those established by the Board of Education, and faithfully executed by willing teachers . . . . .

The necessity of some such system becomes every day more apparent in this city. The city owes it to herself as an act of self-preservation. I shall be met with the objection that the city has no right to compel the attendance of any children upon her public schools. For the sake of argument, admit this to be true, and for a moment let us examine whether there is anything compulsory in the plan proposed. It is not expected that all children will attend the public schools; they are left at liberty to attend or not as they may see fit. The Truant Officer is expected to use all his persuasive power to induce attendance upon some school of those who are growing up without any instruction or without occupation. Further than this I do not ask that his power shall for the present extend. But with truants from schools to which they properly belong, the case is different. They have been placed at school with a full understanding that they must submit to all reasonable rules and regulations. Is any regulation more reasonable than the one which demands regular attendance upon school ? Is any rule more reasonable than the one which requires correct deportment on the part of all pupils ? Would

(399) not a parent have just reason to complain of any school which neglected these very important matters ? Can a proper care for the execution of these rules be considered at all compulsory in its nature ? Does not every candid parent consent to such a discipline of his child? Would any proper means to secure good habits be considered compulsory? Would not every parent rather compel the observance of rules so wise and salutary ?

So far as the arrest and sentence of the offender is concerned, is it any more compulsory than the law which already exists, and under which the same offender is liable to arrest and sentence at least so soon as he shall have reached the point of crime toward which his habits of truancy are most surely leading him? . . . .

The necessity of some system to check truancy is enforced by the following considerations:

Truants are rapidly learning the lessons of the street: lessons at war with the vital interests of the people, a school in which pupils make rapid progress in disobedience to parents, prevarication, falsehood, obscenity, profanity, lewdness, intemperance, petty thieving, larceny, burglary, robbery and murder, whose graduates become a prey upon the citizen, and a constant tax upon his pocket. Out of nearly 2,800 criminals confined in the State of New York during a period of ten years, it was found that less than 250 had ever been regular attendants upon any school.

Again, the cost of the system will be less to the city than the care of the criminals added to the list by its absence.

Still further, the city owes a debt to those poor parents, who are necessarily away from their homes during the entire day, and who cannot, for that reason, prevent or correct the truant habits of their children. Such children feel sure of immunity in their truancy, because their parents cannot be found by the teacher when he seeks a reason for their absence. Many such parents have, during the past year, besought my aid in correcting the truancy of their children. Gladly as I would aid them, my lack of time forbids any such work as a Truant Officer can alone well do.

I leave this subject with the hope that such measures will be adopted by the laity as now lie within their power, and if further legislative action is needed, that early steps will be taken to secure it.


(4) Idle Boys upon the Streets (Extract from the Thirty-fourth Annual Report of the Board of Education, Chicago, 1887-88, pp. 20-23)

Although the State has taken steps toward compulsory education, yet much remains to be done before the law can be efficiently enforced. In some cities, notably New York, there are officers with police authority whose business it is to look out for and take to school truant children found roaming about the streets during school hours; something of the sort is needed here, in order to give greater efficiency to our school system. The law, it is true, provides that parents shall be prosecuted who fail to send their children to school three months during each year. But to devolve this additional duty upon members of the Board of Education, who are already overburdened with so many of the responsibilities of the school system of this great city, practically leaves the law a dead letter. The duty of enforcing this law ought in terms to be devolved upon the agencies provided by law for police purposes or greater powers given specifically to the Board.

In my last report I referred to some of the defects in our school system, notably a want of authority, by which many of the youth of both sexes were permitted to roam idly about the streets. A proper authority to control these children, at least to the extent of compelling their attendance at either the day or the night schools, would undoubtedly be the means of their reclamation to a life of usefulness. It is believed that the Legislature would, if properly memorialized on the subject, so amend the existing law as to authorize the detention of children found upon the street during school hours, and provide for conducting them to school, with punishment for a second offense. This would do much toward breaking up those object lessons in vice, so often found where boys are collected after nightfall.

If authority existed to arrest truant children, and see that they are taken to some city school, the parents would be forced to exercise greater vigilance as to the whereabouts of their children. One of the principal excuses given by some parents for not keeping their children in school is that they are compelled by poverty to send them out to

(401) service, to aid in their own support. This may in some instances be a fair excuse, but in a country like ours the State ought not to permit the early life of a citizen to be thus dwarfed. By the munificence of former citizens, funds have been provided for the purchase of books by the Board, to be distributed, under the direction of the Principal of the school, to pupils whose means are insufficient to purchase the necessary books for school use. And it must be that we have in our midst citizens who would of their substance provide the necessary clothing to enable all children to attend school. Is it not the manifest duty of the State to more effectually prevent the employment of children of tender years in factories, and other places, when the best interests of the community require that their education should be proceeded with? The State looks upon the child, boy or girl, only as a future citizen, in a free State, to be bound by its laws, to participate directly in the administration of its government, and by and through whom its free institutions are to be transmitted unimpaired to future generations. If, therefore, the parent is derelict in his duty and sends his child to work, instead of to school, why should not the State interfere for its own and the child's well-being ? A recent writer on Popular Government, Sir Henry Maine, calls attention to the fact that in Democracies there is a growing tendency, in the individual citizen, to grow indifferent to the minute atom of sovereignty, vested in him, and to become neglectful in its exercise. This neglect, by a natural evolution, develops "the party leader" in our large centers of population. it is of the utmost importance, therefore, that the rising generation shall be early and thoroughly instructed in the duties of an enlightened citizenship, and an earnest and active public spirit developed and perpetuated. The changed conditions from those which prevailed in the past generation, and the great tide of promiscuous immigration, absolutely requires the fostering of a vigilant public spirit in the individual citizen. This is impossible unless through the early proper education of the children.


  1. The President of the Board of Education in New York, in his recent inaugural address, estimates the number of children in that city who are habitually absent from school at more than 20,000. In Cincinnati there are about 41,000 children of suitable age to attend school, of whom it is estimated that more than 8,000 are never found in the schools.

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