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Lorain City Schools administrators are peeling causes of an academic emergency back to the core to find viable solutions.

At a most basic level, children need to attend school in order to learn, said Lorain Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Graham.

Fresh from an equity audit based on data from a 2015-16 school year, Graham says the point of the audit is to make sure all children are treated fairly.

In areas such as absenteeism, academic programs, giftedness, discipline, and athletics, about 40 percent of the students should be Latino or Hispanic, about 26 percent should be black, and about 24 percent should be white, he said.

“The equity audit looks at all the programs and data to make sure what happens in reality is what we expect to happen,” Graham said. “It’s broken down by every demographic. It’s the right thing to do,” Graham said. “Every time I look at it, it makes me sick to my stomach. But we need to fix it. Everything across the board should be the same. What we see in an equity audit is what’s broken. Some things we were already working on. The state didn’t make us do this. We did this on our own.”

The district learned up to 25 percent of the students have a high absence rate, Graham said.

“When you look at our attendance, we have a 92 percent attendance rate at most buildings,” Graham said. “At the high school it’s in the 80s, and New Beginnings Academy is in the 60s. But a lot of those kids are chronically truant by state standards. When you have 20 to 25 percent kids who are chronically truant, or missing 18 days or more a year, it’s pretty obvious this is an issue. Kids can’t learn if they’re not here.

“It’s about identifying what’s broken and how to react to that,” Graham said. “We can’t fix things that broke 10, 20 or 30 years ago. But we can fix what is broken now.”

A group begins June 28 to devise a plan to connect with families and encourage prompt and faithful school attendance, he said.

In 80 percent of schools, the way truancy is handled is to send a letter to parents, or to punish the student, he said. At Lorain Schools, an administrator visits the home to talk face-to-face and to help solve problems, he said.

“Unfortunately punishment has been used to deter truancy,” Graham said. “We need to change what happens.”

An outsider perspective was needed, so Graham brought Ross May, a school psychologist who works for a State Support Team in Cuyahoga County, to complete the equity audit. The results of the audit produced data that is both overwhelming and sad, Graham said.

The idea is for the ethnic diversity of the school district to be mirrored in each program and in hiring practices, he said.

If not, Graham says the question to ask is, “Why?”

“It was incredibly informative,” Graham said, adding a program doing well is career tech.

“We were almost perfectly mirrored by demographics of the district,” Graham said. “Why? That’s what we’re trying to find out. When we see something broken, we say, ‘Why is it broken?’ When we know why, we can fit best practices with a Lorain approach, custom applied to Lorain. Finding out why it’s going well in one area tells us why or why not in other areas.”

In the process of lifting the proverbial rug to see what was swept underneath, often people react emotionally rather than practically, he said.

What is needed is a determination to set aside emotions, and to work together to find the cause and fix it, he said.

“An equity audit potentially harms the district because it points out problems before a plan is in place to fix it,” Graham said. “If we did this in every district across the state we would be sick to our stomachs about the data. It scares people, and it also is incredibly insulting to people. It makes people very defensive.”

The work involves diving into the data to find out what the numbers are really saying, said Lorain Schools assistant superintendent Dr. Stephen Sturgill.

Graham quoted assistant superintendent Mic Becerra as saying rather than criminalizing truancy, for example, the district should educate parents on the importance of faithful attendance.

Also, the district needs to find out what help a family may need, he said.

“The approach is going to be completely positive,” Graham said. “We’re trying to establish relationships. I’m sure there are thousands of reasons why parents aren’t sending children to school. We’re working with Cleveland. They found out families didn’t send their children to school because they didn’t want them to go by the crack house.”

The district also is made up of about 52 percent male and 48 percent female students, Sturgill said. The males miss school about 1 percent more than females, he said.

The district is trying to compare the number of days missed with academic performance, Graham said, and the threshold where missing days causes a decline in performance.

“These things take time,” Graham said, “because it’s changing a culture and building trust. Our families are in the same boat. If they don’t know we care, everything else is pretty tough. We want to find the ‘Why?’ We don’t want solutions right away. Quick fixes don’t work. There are no quick fixes that are sustainable. And once we have the first why answered, there are usually eight more you have to answer before you can fix it.”

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