Chronic absence figures for town's teachers result of 'perfect storm,' ed leaders say

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Chronic absenteeism rates among teachers in the town’s school district last year were an aberration, Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo and Johnston Federation of Teachers President Kathy Kandzierski said during a joint interview Tuesday.

According to Rhode Island Department of Education figures, Johnston had three of the top five schools in the state in terms of chronic teacher absenteeism. Johnston High School topped the list at 29.1 percent, with Thornton Elementary School in second place at 27.6 percent. Winsor Hill was in fifth at 22.3 percent, while Brown Avenue and Ferri Middle School both made the top 15 at 20.5 percent and 19.2 percent, respectively.

DiLullo said the state’s definition of chronic absenteeism is missing 10 percent of school days. Teachers in the district receive 15 sick days, which can be accumulated, and three personal days. Administrators are allotted 18 sick days.

“The teachers who have accumulated sick days are not abusers of the sick days,” DiLullo said. “Teachers who don’t have any sick days each year are people who are using their sick days every year. Most of our teachers are accumulating their sick days, a lot of sick days.”

DiLullo said last year’s statistics represent an outlier for Johnston. He said one school had seven teacher pregnancies at around the same time, while Johnston High saw several “catastrophic illnesses” and teachers who had extended leaves because of falls in school or in the parking lot.

Kandzierski said the percentages “make this look worse than it is.”

“The teachers were hurt by all those reports, because it just makes everybody look awful and they’re not. There are so many good teachers in Johnston,” Kandzierski said. “I know my teachers. I’ve been here a long time and I know them. They work hard.”

DiLullo noted that numbers are looking better for the district this year so far, with Kandzierski saying long-term illnesses are down. Last time around, RIDE’s recently added Star Ratings and accountability study, mixed with Johnston’s unique circumstances, created a perfect storm.

“I don’t understand that at all, because I don’t want to down any one of the other districts by any means, but I don’t know how Johnston ended up looking that bad,” Kandzierski said. “I know it’s only one example, but one of my teachers who saw how many days she was out, she said, ‘I wasn’t out all those days. A couple of those days were field trips.’ If you're a teacher and you go on a field trip, you’re out of the building but you’re not taking a pleasure field trip.”

DiLullo also pointed out that Johnston splits art and music teachers, physical education instructors and librarians among the elementary schools. Teachers often spend half of the week at one school and the other half in another, which could end up skewing their absenteeism numbers.

He expressed concern about how those missed days would be factored into the formula when Star Ratings came out last year.

“Now, if I’m ill and most of my illnesses for whatever reason take place, let’s say I’m at Brown Avenue, it looks like I only work part-time and 10 percent of my absences – when I get 10 percent of my absences, it’s only nine days – it looks like I’m chronically absent from Brown Avenue,” DiLullo explained. “When, in fact, I’m a full-time employee and what you should be looking at it is my 183 days because I work at both schools.”

Kandzierski and DiLullo also called into question professional development days being counted against teachers.

“I’m saying if our teachers have to go to professional development, they like it, but they’re being asked to go to professional development, in lieu of teaching that day, but that was counted against them as an absence,” Kandzierski said.

DiLullo said he’s worried the chronic absenteeism rates could paint a negative picture of teachers that isn’t accurate.

“I think one of the things we all have to be careful is, like in Johnston, our teachers work hard, and a story that identifies, ‘Oh, they’re all out or they take advantage of their sick days,’ or that kind of stuff, vilifies teachers and that’s not where we want to be,” DiLullo said. “We want to be where teachers are respected for the work that they do, and I think that’s important to note.”

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