Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools


Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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This study of the truant and non-attending school children of Chicago was begun as a continuation of an inquiry into the care of the wards of the juvenile Court of Cook County, which we undertook some years ago in the Department of Social Investigation of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. A study of the delinquent children of the court was published four years ago,[1] and it was planned to follow that volume with similar studies of the truant and the dependent children who also come before the Chicago Court.

The present volume, however, has taken us beyond the juvenile court children with whom we began. A study of truant children, which was planned as the second volume in a juvenile court series, led us into the larger problem of school attendance, for it was apparent that a study of truancy would be of little value without an inquiry into the broader questions of non-attendance during the compulsory-attendance period and the enforcement of the child labor laws which should protect the children who are near the age when the required period of school attendance comes to an end.

Thirty-three years have passed since the principle of compulsory school attendance was adopted in the state of Illinois by the passing of the first "Act to secure to children the benefit of an elementary education." The following chapters show how slow we were to adopt this principle and how reluctantly, after it. was adopted, Ole local educational authorities Of die various cities, towns, and counties to whom its enforcement was

(viii) intrusted, proceeded to act under it. Experience has taught us that almost any form of social legislation that is left to be enforced by a multitude of independent local authorities will be brought slowly to its promised usefulness. Unfortunately it was not possible for us to extend our study far beyond the limits of Chicago. Chaps. xvii and xviii, however, throw some light on the present compulsory-attendance situation throughout the state and raise once again the question whether a state educational authority-commission or bureau-should not be created with the power of supervising the work of the local authorities in the enforcement of the state school laws.

Some criticism may fall to our lot because we have ventured to write of educational matters connected with the Chicago public-school system when we have never had any connection with the Chicago schools. Our excuse must be that such a book obviously could not be written by those inside the school system. A further excuse which should perhaps be offered is that for nearly a decade we have been closely connected with the social agencies of Chicago and that this study deals only with the social aspects of school problems. It is our belief that there should be a closer co-operation between the schools and those who call themselves " social workers " in all our large cities; for, after all, the teachers in our elementary schools should form the largest body of social workers in every depressed and congested district where there is a field for social work.

In the course of collecting material for this inquiry we have incurred many obligations which we can acknowledge only collectively. To the members of the Chicago school system, the Department of Compulsory Education, the Chicago Parental School, and the Chicago juvenile Court we are greatly indebted for information cheerfully given in response to many tedious inquiries. It is a pleasure to express here our deep appreciation of the generous co-operation which was given by judge Merritt W. Pinckney, of the Chicago juvenile Court, and by

(ix) Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, who for five years, never to be forgotten by those interested in educational progress, was superintendent of the Chicago public schools. Although they had no part in suggesting, planning, or directing this inquiry, they both welcomed any attempt, honestly made, to obtain information regarding the working of the great institutions which are maintained for the poorest and most friendless of the children of Chicago.

We must also express our appreciation to our friend and former colleague at Hull-House and the School of Civics and Philanthropy, Miss Julia C. Lathrop, now chief of the Federal Children's Bureau. Miss Lathrop read the entire manuscript, and we are indebted to her for valuable suggestions. It is scarcely necessary to say, however, that no one of the persons mentioned has the smallest responsibility for any of the opinions expressed in these pages.

To our friends in the social agencies of Chicago, especially the Immigrants' Protective League, the Vocational Supervision Bureau, the juvenile Protective Association, and the United Charities, we are deeply indebted. Through their experience, working as they do day after day and year after year with the families of the children that the compulsory education and child labor laws were designed to protect, they have an invaluable store of information regarding the administration of these laws, and this experience they have generously shared with us.

It is a pleasure to explain that this study, like the earlier juvenile court investigation, has been carried on with the assistance of students in the Department of Social Investigation of the School of Civics and Philanthropy. It is unfortunately not possible to mention by name all the students who have had some share in the work. Special acknowledgment must, however, be made of the work of Miss Grace P. Norton (now Mrs. Lorenz), Miss Natalie Walker, Miss Margaret Hobbs,

(x) Miss Helen Campbell, and Miss Fanny R. Sweeny (now Mrs. Wickes). We are also indebted to Miss Maud E. Lavery, of the School of Civics and Philanthropy, for assistance of many kinds. Finally, we must record our appreciation of the help given by the Russell Sage Foundation, which generously supplied the funds necessary for the carrying out of this inquiry.

November 23, 1916


  1. See The Delinquent Child and the Home: A Study of the Delinquent Wards of the Juvenile Court of Chicago, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1912.

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