Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Appendix 6: A Note On Statistics Relating to School Attendance in Chicago

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Consideration of the problem of truancy necessarily involves a study of statistics of school attendance and enrolment. Exact information on these points, however, is difficult to obtain. To answer with any degree of precision the questions that arise as to enrolment in the Chicago schools, irregularity of attendance, distribution of children between public and private schools, and like problems, it is necessary to study the Proceedings and Annual Reports of the Board of Education, the Biennial School Census, and the Official Catholic Directory. The first two deal with the public schools only, and give figures which are practically the same, those in the Reports being derived from those in the Proceedings. The School Census figures, which differ considerably from those in the Reports of the Board of Education, are for both public and private schools; but for the most important group of private institutions, the Catholic parochial schools, the Official Catholic Directory is our only source of information.

Even with so many sets of facts at hand, it is impossible to ascertain exactly the number of school children in Chicago. Turning first to the public schools, we find that the Proceedings of the Board of Education give us, during the seventeen years studied, tables of total enrolment, average daily membership, average daily attendance, and total membership. There are also tables of membership in the separate departments of the school system, and, after 1900, in the schools for defectives, the Parental School, and the John Worthy School. All these tables are given for each month of the school year. Our interest centers, however, in the tables of monthly

(448) enrolment and membership for the whole system, their meaning and the relations between them.

Each year, as Table I shows, the enrolment- that is, the number of children who have been registered at any time during the year - increases noticeably from September to June. This gain is so great

Year Enrolment Excess of June over September
September June
1897-98 208,574 236,239 27,665
1898-99 215,682 242,807 27,125
1899-1900 222,739 255,861 33,122
1900-1901 229,890 262,738 32,848
1901-2 234,593 268,392 33,799
1902-3 239,331 274,247 34,916
1903-4 246,597 279,183 32,586
1904-5 251,067 282,346 31,279
1905-6 254,379 287,113 32,734
1906-7 255,798 286,766 30,968
1907-8 255,212 292,508 37,368
1908-9 260,331 296,427 36,096
1909-10 261,683 301,172 39,489
1910-11 265,552 304,146 38,594
1911-12 268,595 307,281 38,686
1912-13 274,533 315,737 41,204
1913-14 286,492 332,248 45,756

*Data from monthly tables in the Proceedings of the Chicago Board of Education.

that it raises a question as to whether it can represent so great an actual increase in the number of children attending school, especially since the number drops again the following September. Some of the difference is, of course, due merely to later entrance. Other possible causes of increase are the entrance of children reaching seven years of age, and the entrance of those coming from private schools and from other cities. This, however, could hardly account for so great a gain, especially as there are counterbalancing losses constantly

(449) going on, when children leave school at the upper age limit, change to private schools, or move to other cities. It seems probable, therefore, that much of this gain is due to duplicate enrolment, that is, the registration in the books of both schools of children who have been transferred from one public school to another. As to this, however, we can only guess since there is no separate enumeration of transfers and readmissions.

The supposition that duplicate enrolment may be an explanation for the great increase in the figures from September to June is supported by a study of the tables of monthly membership, that is, the number of children who are in fairly regular attendance at school. Table II shows that not only is the smallest enrolment (September)

Year Month in Which
Membership was Largest
Surplus of September
Enrolment over Largest Monthly membership
Decrease in Membership
 from September to June
1897-8 October 4,937 9,898
1898-9 November 4,471 14,727
1899-0 October 5,622 8,467
1900-1 October 4,638 11,897
1901-2 October 5,132 11,178
1092-3 October 6,170 12,277
1903-4 October 5,988 6,952
1904-5 November 6,047 9,729
1905-6 September 7,085 11,396
1906-7 September 7,061† 14,256
1907-8 October 6,660 6,242
1908-9 November 8,288 8,568
1909-10 September 8,605 8,684
1910-11 September 8,109 11,525
1911-12 September 8,398 7,776
1912-13 October 8,921 7,988
1913-14 September 8,283 4,490

* Based on monthly tables of enrolment and membership in Proceedings of the Chicago Board of Education.
† Membership for April larger, but obviously a misprint.

(450) invariably considerably larger than the largest monthly membership, but that, though the enrolment increases steadily from September to June, the membership decreases. This falling off in membership can scarcely be attributed to transfers, as in that case the gains would offset the losses. It may, however, be due to an excess of losses over gains from private schools and other cities; to the excess of those leaving school when they become fourteen over those entering when they become seven-, to illness or incapacity; to truancy, working under age, or other illegal absence. How the losses apportion themselves among these possible causes cannot be determined.

If, then, we are asked, "How many children are there in the public schools? " we have a considerable range of numbers from which to select a reply. It may be that the largest membership will come nearest to showing the number of children actually in school. If, however, we prefer the enrolment figures, we are at a loss to know which to select. It would seem that September or October would probably contain the smallest number of duplications; but, on the other hand, the Board of Education gives the June enrolment as the number of children for the year, and it is possible, and in some cases certain, that other cities also report the largest enrolment as the number for the year, The School Census gives us still another set of totals. In 1904 the number of children attending the public schools as given in the School Census corresponds most nearly to that given in the Proceedings as the September enrolment. In 1906 the census number lies between the membership for September and that for October, and is considerably less than the September enrolment. In 1908, however, it is nearest to the October enrolment, and in 1910 it lies between the enrolments for February and for March. For 19 12 the census figure is considerably larger than the June enrolment, but in 1914, though the census was taken in May, the total number of children recorded as attending the public schools corresponds exactly to the June enrolment. This coincidence is even more startling when we recall the fact that the census supposedly includes in its total not only the children in public schools, but also the large number who are enrolled in private schools.

The School Census figures are obviously useless for checking those given in the Proceedings and Reports of the Board of Education. Not

(451) only do the totals vary greatly, but the figures are given in the Proceedings by school divisions and by age at the time of first enrolment, and in the census by age at the time of enumeration. Comparison between the two sets of figures is impossible. Furthermore, as the age grouping changes considerably, the census figures from year to year are not readily comparable with each other.

Returning to a consideration of the numbers of children in the schools, we find that, if the School Census returns are unsatisfactory for comparison with those given by the Board of Education, they are equally so for comparison with those for the Catholic parochial schools. No census taken after 1900 makes any distinction between these schools and other private schools, and censuses taken before 1900 give figures of doubtful accuracy. In order to study the numbers in this most important group of private schools it was therefore necessary to turn to the Official Catholic Directory, and Table III

Table 3 Statistics of Enrolment of Catholic Parochial Schools of Chicago for the School Years 1897-98 to 1913-14
Year Given Total Computed Total
All Schools Minus High Schools Named
1897-98 -- 44,896 --
1899-1900 -- 50,301 --
1901-2 -- 57,419 --
1903-4 -- 62,438 --
1904-5 68,004 68,432 64,463
1905-6 68,004 72,351 69,611
1906-7 68,004 --
1907-8 68,520 76,532 73,707
1908-9 78,200 79,861 77,491
1909-10 81,680 84,694 82,084
1910-11 82,975 86,055 83,188
1911-12 90,500 88,709 87,249
1912-13 94,315 90,834 89,941
1913-14 95,110 94,520 93,284

*Excluding 1898-99, 1900-1901, 1902-3.
†Based on figures in Official Catholic Directory for years cited.
‡Figures for separate schools not found.

(452) presents statistics of enrolment for the Catholic parochial schools of Chicago for a series of years. Before 1905 the enrolment is given biennially for each school, and from these data, totals for the city were computed. For 1905, however, and for every year thereafter, a total for the city is given. For several years, however, these totals are almost certainly inaccurate, as the figures for 1905, 1906, and 1907 are exactly the same, and 1908, as Table III shows, makes only a very slight change. This inaccuracy, together with some uncertainty as to what is included in the given total, as well as the fact that the totals prior to 1905 were of necessity computed, made it seem best, in dealing with the parochial schools, to use the computed grand total, including, so far as we know, all schools, grades, and ages.

There is general agreement among the parochial school teachers that the reports sent to the Directory are based on enrolment at the end of the school year, and comparison may therefore fairly be made between the June enrolment for the public schools, and the computed totals for the parochial schools. This comparison has been made in Table IV, which shows a steady gain in numbers for the parochial as well as for the public schools. Though the transfers between public and private schools may fairly be assumed to cancel each other in the course of a year, it is most probable that the Catholic school figures, like those for the public schools, contain many duplications. For this reason the sum of the two enrolments would probably be somewhat greater than the actual number registered in the schools.

The steady gain in the Catholic school enrolment is even more apparent in Table V, which shows, in so far as it can be ascertained, the distribution of school children between the two systems.[2] It will be observed that from 1897 to 1904, we have figures for alternate years only. Comparable parochial school figures for the other year

(453) are lacking. After 1904 the figures are, with one exception, given for every year. It is obvious that, while both the Catholic and the public schools show a marked gain in actual numbers, the proportion of children in the Catholic schools is increasing rapidly at the expense of the public schools, which show a relatively decreasing enrolment.

Table IV Comparison of Numbers Enrolled in Public and Catholic Parochial Schools of Chicago For the Years 1897-98 to 1913-14
Year June Enrolment Public Schools Computed Total
Catholic Parochial Schools
1897-98 236,239 44,893
1898-99 242,807 *
1899-1900 255,861 50,001
1900-1 262,783 *
1901-2 268,392 57,149
1902-3 274,247 *
1903-4 279,183 65,438
1904-5 282,346 68,423
1905-6 287,113 72,351
1906-7 286,766
1907-8 292,581 76,532
1908-9 296,427 79,861
1909-10 301,172 84,694
1910-11 304,146 86,055
1911-12 307,281 88,709
1912-13 315,737 90,834
1913-14 332,248 94,520

* comparable figures not given.
† Figures for separate schools not found.

From this cursory attempt to answer some of the most frequently recurring questions as to school attendance, it is evident that the information available is most unsatisfactory. The difficulty seems, in general, to be due rather to a careless presentation of material than to lack of facts. The exception to this is, of course, the matter of duplicate enrolment. Account should be kept not only of transfers between public schools, and from public to private schools, but

(454) also of readmissions to the public schools. If these facts were properly recorded, it would be possible to tell, from year to year, exactly how many children were enrolled in the city schools. This number would agree, approximately, with the total membership of the schools, and we should not be called upon annually, as we are now, to explain the problem of a steadily increasing enrolment and a steadily decreasing membership.

Table V. Distribution of Children in Chicago Schools Between Public and Catholic Parochial Schools
Year* Number per 1,000 School Children
Public Schools Catholic Parochial Schools
1897-98 809 153
1899-1900 803 157
1901-2 792 169
1903-4 778 182
1904-5 773 187
1905-6 768 183
1907-8 762 199
1908-9 755 204
1909-10 750 211
1910-11 749 212
1911-12 746 215
1912-13 747 215
1913-14 749 213

*As the enrolment for the separate Catholic schools was not given in 1906-7 it was impossible to compute the total enrolment, and was therefore necessary to omit from the table the figures for this year.

The school census may be expected ultimately to furnish valuable attendance statistics but the statistical work should be more carefully done than it has been in the past. All children of compulsory school age should be systematically and logically accounted for. It ought to be possible to ascertain from the school census the total number and the regularity of attendance of children enrolled in public, parochial, and other private schools.


  1. For this note we are indebted to Natalie Walker, research student, 1914-15 and to Fanny R. Sweeny (now Mrs. Wickes), research student, 1911-12.
  2. In making this computation we have assumed that the number of pupils enrolled in all schools equals the total for the public schools (June enrolment) plus the computed totals for the Catholic parochial schools. To this was added 4 per cent of the combined total to represent the other private schools. We find that when the census gives figures for these schools, as in 1898 and 1900, the number practically equals this 4 per cent of the combined total. In the absence of information to the contrary, we have assumed this proportion to be constant.

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