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Norwalk BoE scrutinizes teacher absences

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Talent Officer Cherese Chery presents a “Norwalk Teacher Absenteeism Study” to the Board of Education on Tuesday in the Norwalk Early Childhood Center (NECC).

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk teachers are above average in Connecticut in terms of being absent, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Talent Officer Cherese Chery said Tuesday.

Chery presented a “Norwalk Teacher Absenteeism Study” to the Board of Education, saying that it was “commissioned  as a priority implementation step of the Strategic Operating Plan to respond to several years of a sub cost reflected by an increase (sic) level of teacher absence.”

Those are Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski’s words, she said, after reading from a PowerPoint presentation.

Administrators thought that the substitute budget might have something to do with teacher attendance, but, “I will tell you that when I went through the study the substitute account is not reflective of teacher absence,” she said.

The data was collected through AESOP, a computer program that teachers use to report themselves absent and input the need for a substitute, she said.

“In the past, we didn’t do a great job with AESOP. … I wouldn’t even suggest going back and looking at AESOP beyond last year,” said Chery, who recently announced that she is leaving Norwalk.

Chery began work here in July 2016; her last day is Feb. 28.

“Over the last two school years we have been looking at the data, putting it in a place where we can report data correctly, use data correctly, and actually use it to create these reports for you,” she said to the Board. “I don’t know if we were always in a place where they were correct, so that’s what we have been doing for you.”

“The purpose was not to just see what teachers were doing… we actually wanted to incentivize teachers to come to work,” she said.

For the purposes of the study, administrators decided to consider a teacher “frequently absent” if the teacher has missed more than 10 days of school, she said, calling that 5 percent of the school year and pointing out that 10 days is used as a standard elsewhere.

She also pointed out that Connecticut law mandates that teachers be given 15 sick days.

“I believe we should not penalize teachers for using what we are giving to them,” she said, suggesting that 16 sick days be considered “chronic absenteeism.”

The data was culled to eliminate teachers who were out for more than 10 days at one time, she said.

The PowerPoint said:

  • “The State of Connecticut reported absences at an average of 9.6 days in 2015-2016
  • “Norwalk teachers reported absences at an average of 10.3 days in 2016- 2017”

 

The AESOP data also showed that teachers were absent more often on Fridays during 2016-2017, with 2,409 total absences on Fridays and 1,670 absences on Mondays, the next highest number.

May had more absences than other months, with 1,224 comparing to the next highest total, 1,116 for March.

“I am not sure what is happening,” Chery said.

The PowerPoint shows that Ponus Ridge Middle School teachers were absent more often in 2016-17 than their peers, with average absences reported as:

  • Ponus Ridge 15.38
  • Nathan Hale 11.5
  • Roton 10.98
  • West Rocks 9.65

 

“We need to look at this data year after year to see what the trends are, see if things are changing as we implement policies,” Chery said.

“If we were to define chronically absent, we really only have 12 percent of our teachers in that category,” Chery said. “I am not here to define anything yet but we do have allow 15 days. So we have a number of teachers falling in the category of 10-15 days absent, 26 percent. So again, we have to really think about what our culture is and what we want for the district. I will tell you that there are 5 to 6 percent of teachers with perfect attendance, so I think that’s something to be celebrated.”

Chery outlined strategies to encourage better attendance, including an exploration of team models. Team members would be responsible for each other in the event of an absence, she said.

There are also ongoing wellness programs, she said, mentioning that Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon has asked for an expanded flu shot program.

Board of Education Vice Chairman Erik Anderson, running Tuesday’s meeting, called Chery’s work a “fantastic breakdown” of data, “a beginning step” and a “necessary step.”

“It’s really helpful to have numbers in front of us,” Board member Julie Corbett said.

If a student is absent for 10 days in the school year and their teacher is also absent 10 days, “that’s a student missing a whole month of school,” and over 12 years of schooling an entire year’s worth of instruction lost, she said.

“This is deeply troubling,” Corbett said. “I am glad to see there are some suggestions already in play and I fully support many of them.”

Substitutes rarely follow lesson plans, said Board member Bruce Kimmel, a former elementary school teacher.

“The situation from the perspective of the student is bad,” he said.

Board member Heidi Keyes called it “very compelling information.”
“The wellness engagement I think is huge,” she said. “… I think it’s great to have incentives.”

“I do not want this to be perceived in any way as an attack as it might appear to be,” Anderson said. “From my perspective, this is material that I want to use, along with my fellow Board members, to improve the lives of our teachers, our students, administrators to make it work better. The numbers are glaring but that doesn’t mean anyone is necessarily at fault.  I want to make this as positive a turnaround as possible and also address any potential issues that are occurring.”

“I hope this does not come across as an attack,” Chery said, repeating her enthusiasm for the wellness programs.

Yordon did not speak at the meeting. She later sent an email to NancyOnNorwalk saying:

“Norwalk teachers are dedicated to their students and school communities. We dedicate our lives and careers to student success. We are committed to being in school with our students to achieve this success.

“The Board presentation this evening suggested an increase in absent teachers. However, Connecticut performance and profile reports track teacher absence rates. These state reports use the district’s own data and show a very stable rate of teacher absence since 2012-2013, at an average 9.9 -10.3 days of absence for every year since.  So, I’m puzzled by the suggestion that there is an increase in teacher absence.”

 

Data on the state’s website shows:

  • 2012-13: Norwalk average 10 days
  • 2013-14: Norwalk average 9.9 days; state average 9.3
  • 2014-15: Norwalk average 10 days; state average 9.4
  • 2015-16: Norwalk average 10 days; state average 9.4

 

Yordon said, “I support the implementation of enlightened policies and programs to support positive attendance patterns.”

BoE teacher absence study 18-0206 part I 20180207

BoE teacher absence study 18-0206 part II charts 20180207

26 comments

Wineshine February 7, 2018 at 7:18 am

Just finished digesting the line “priority implementation step of the Strategic Operating Plan….blah blah. What? What does that mean? Has someone bothered to ask the teachers why they’re seemingly more committed to creating theee day weekends than raising test scores? “Shouldn’t penalize them for that they’re being given”? Pity the poor teachers who have been beaten into four day weeks. Maybe the problem is that they’ve been “given” fifteen sick days? Here’s a quick quiz: what do you call a private sector worker who is chronically absent and particularly on Monday and Friday? Anyone? The answer is UNEMPLOYED.

Rem February 7, 2018 at 8:48 am

I actually laughed out loud when I read “wellness programs”! It’s really shocking to see how clueless the Board of Education is! The reason for high absence rates is not because their staff is sick so much, it’s because teachers are overburdened with administrative tasks!

@Wineshine and others who take such simplistic views: If you had to use your personal time after work grading homework, answering work emails and preparing lesson plans and you were well aware that you were NOT getting paid for all that overtime, would you instead be singing a very different tune? Wouldn’t it be really nice to take a day off JUST SO THAT YOU COULD CATCH UP?? In fact, you know what, how about you contact Human Resources at NPS and ask to be a substitute teacher. They really need more of them. Follow the lesson plans, cover for other teachers, attend meetings, answer emails and then come back here and tell me that you were able to do all those things within a school day and still had time left over. I suspect that you wouldn’t want to come back and would come screaming back to the private sector, which depending on which company you might work for, might actually have more vacation AND sick days…

Teachers have an incredible burden and unfortunately, in the United States of America, don’t really have that much respect. They have an enormous amount of work to do (teaching kids is really hard — if as a parent you think it’s difficult for one or two, try to wear the shoes of teachers with a dozen or more), aren’t well compensated for it (many teachers of NPS live in Fairfield and Bridgeport, or even as far away as Danbury), have to deal with a lot of disciplinary problems (or otherwise annoyingly nagging parents) and attend implementation meetings related to all the programs that NPS likes funding and throwing around. Where are the administrators to lighten the load? Who knows!

I will share with you a very telling anecdote. Some weeks ago I attended a private function for teachers. It was at a home of one of the teachers and obviously their bosses were not in earshot. They sang a very different tune from what you might hear officially from the NPS. There was a discussion about the weather and all the snow days. They were explaining how the snow days were such a gift for them because it meant that they could actually get some sleep in the morning (some get up at 4am to get ready for work) and then for the rest of the day actually get something done! Do work! Grade papers, answer emails, prepare NEW lesson plans, etc! It’s not a day off for them unlike their students!

So how about respecting your hardworking teachers, and even your substitute teachers that do follow the lesson plans and give them a break. In fact, if you’re a parent of an NPS kid, call up and complain to the NPS that teachers should be doing more teaching and less BS administration.

Sas February 7, 2018 at 9:28 am

The law allows a certain number of sick days. It is illegal to penalize an employee for taking less than the legally permitted sick days. Learning doesn’t stop just because the teacher is out – substitutes should be able to continue the process of following the curriculum and teacher process.

Also, the state law mandates a certain number of sick days and I use them when I need them. My employer would never dare penalize me for being human and being sick – that only happens when you have a workforce that doesnt understand their rights. For example, I got the flu vaccine, the flu and the pneumonia – that killed my sick time way before the end of the year.

The issue is not teachers being out sick but WHY. Are they really ill or are they frustrated? How can the atmosphere be improved upon so there is less stress?

Wineshine, If you want to hold teachers to a corporate standard you will get a corporate result which is children becoming drones, ingenuity and creativity stifled and depression and mental instability rampant (Yes, a large part of the workforce is that way). Seriously, if you were to go into the classroom and even talk with a teacher to see what they do after the bell rings you wouldn’t have that demanding, arrogant and supercilious attitude towards them.

Patrick Cooper February 7, 2018 at 11:56 am

@Wineshine – if your mind is tangled with “priority implementation step…” – how about the NFT lead Yordon … “I support the implementation of enlightened policies and programs to support positive attendance patterns.” And I support naturally occurring weather patterns that result in generally positive sunshine dispersal.

Also – “@REM doth protest too much, methinks.” These are just statistics taken from data – and they are trying to discern if there is an underlying pattern. However….

No one who knows anything about WRMS would begrudge any teacher from a few “mental health days”. Those are survival instincts – right MargieM?

That said – @REM – your comment that private companies provide more vacation days and sick days? Just in case you have no personal knowledge (I suspect), typical “benefits” for “PTO” (personal time off) includes national holidays (8-10 – same for everyone), 2 weeks’ vacation for your first 5-7 years, 3 for your next 8-15, and 4 for over 15/ maybe 20 years. Add in 5 sick days. Maybe 2 (non-denominational personal holidays – like “Good Friday” or Rosh Hashanah”). So, after 15/20 years – completely maxed out – a person might achieve in total a month off. What do you call July & August? Plus, a Fall, Winter, and Spring Break? No – there is no person employed in the “private” sector who get PTO equal to Teacher’s. Just stop it.

Same with work load. You have no idea what “the other side” must do – stop making what teachers do herculean compared to private sector employees – it’s just not accurate.

No resident who follow’s Norwalk Education carefully would suggest that this absenteeism is pervasive – but – there are certainly some who push the envelope. And there’s the rub – because what you didn’t see Yordon say is – “I support the implementation of clear, non-negotiable performance standards that help weed out the bottom 10%”. Nope – that’s the issue – union work rules, and absolute protection of the bottom rung. It’s how good teachers get caught up in the mess – because the entirety of the profession is smeared by the misdeeds of the few. Fix that – create an environment that rewards the top 20% and moves out the bottom 10% – and you would see a very different system. But no chance with our unions. No chance.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 7, 2018 at 3:53 pm

Twelve percent of staff with chronic absenteeism is a high figure. If @Rem is correct that administrative burdens account for some of the sick days, is it also worth looking into how administrative burdens in Norwalk compare to those in the state as a whole? Otherwise the BOE can’t really look to these burdens as having much influence in what seems to be an unfortunate patttern. Also it is understood that there will be some time spent doing lesson plans and grading papers before and after the bells. If absences reach the point of disrupting student productivity, that’s a very costly problem for the NPS.

Townie February 7, 2018 at 4:19 pm

The teachers are unionized and covered by a collective bargaining agreement. When the agreement provides teachers with sick days, they are entitled to be taken, under the provisions set forth in the agreement. Unless the contract has established restrictions on the use of sick days, or sets forth other requirements, what is being argued?

Brenda Wilcox Williams February 7, 2018 at 4:38 pm

I want to clarify a few points made on this last night’s topic. The contractual allotment of 15 annual sick days is in place to cover illness and medical issues. We work with children and the adults around them do get sick. When a teacher is truly sick, we definitely want them to stay home and take care of themselves.

While they should be used when necessary, annual sick days aren’t an entitlement to be used no matter what. Last night, Ms. Chery referenced benchmarks from other sources that identify 10 days as the bar for identifying frequent absenteeism. With verified data now in hand, we need to create our own standards and practices to promote better attendance overall.

The data Ms. Chery presented last night suggests that there may be some misuse of sick time. The frequency of Friday absences is something that needs to be looked into, as well as the percentage of teachers who are absent more than 16+ non-consecutive days over the course of a school year. We owe that to our students, to Norwalk taxpayers and to other teachers and staff.

Finally, as Ms. Chery said yesterday, data available from previous years had other types of absences mixed in, which is she and her team did not analyze information from prior years. Her recommendation was to use the data presented last night from 2016-17, taken directly from the AESOP reporting system, as a baseline for a subsequent year-over-year comparison. In the meantime, the next step for our Talent Department is to further identify patterns in the data we have, so that we can better understand what’s happening, identify misuse and address it accordingly.

Rayj February 7, 2018 at 8:13 pm

Unfortunately, jobs with no holiday, vacation , or sick time off are becoming more in number today. And that workforce looks up to the teacher salaries, benefits, and pays the taxes to make it possible

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 7, 2018 at 8:56 pm

My kids were lucky to have exceptional teachers. Some of the time. Mediocre teachers much of the time. And sadly bad teachers—teachers who were objectively bad for kids—far too often. Once is too often for a child to endure. One, a kindergarten teacher who was chronically absent, could not be reassigned because of ADA and union protection. Anyone who’s worried about whether or not teachers are getting a fair shake—whether or not the absences are acceptable or whether or not teachers are overburdened—is not considering the impact on children of these kinds of disruptions. Life happens. People get sick. Teachers need extended leave sometimes. But a pattern of Friday absences? And the only excuse here is that teachers, who don’t work summers, are overburdened? Tell that to the families where Mom and Dad work 50-60 hours/week and their tax dollars pay those salaries. Teachers don’t get enough respect? Do tax payers get any?

NTS February 7, 2018 at 9:19 pm

Did they look at any correlation between student absence and teacher absence? When a classroom has 5 or 6 students out with flu or stomach bug, it isn’t hard to imagine the teacher may get sick as well. Sometimes you have a couple of outbreaks of one thing or another in the same school year. Students come to school sick all the time. I’ve seen students who are vomiting or have fevers sent back to class. The nurse’s office gets crowded at times and students have to be sent back to class to wait for a parent to be reached. Did they look into whether or not the schools with the higher numbers or teachers with higher numbers are in classrooms or buildings with chronic leaks and mold. There is more of that than you think, and not much is being done about it. As far as it being illegal for teachers to be penalized for using less than their given sick days, that happens more than you think as well.

Ann February 8, 2018 at 6:18 am

I think the point here is that you can’t look at one data point and get a clear picture of the situation. It’s not as simple as teachers are in school or absent. First of all, teachers are given 15 days a year so that we can bank them and use them in the case of long medical needs like a cancer diagnosis, child birth, surgery, etc. Someone who has an extended absence is going to skew the absentee numbers artificially higher. Secondly, teacher absenteeism could be indicative of a larger school climate issue. If any schools are statistically, significantly higher than others, then may other as aspects of that particular school need to be looked at – like student discipline and student attendance. Those schools should be supported more to improve morale. Thirdly, the amount of time teachers do spend after school or on personal time doing work should be accounted for some how. I don’t know of there is an accurate way to collect the data. A teacher can be after school everyday for an extra three hours helping students and be questioned over taking a Friday off. It seems one sided.

Norwalk parent February 8, 2018 at 7:27 am

15 sick days for 9.5 months of work. That seems very high at almost 2 days a month or 1 every other week. I would get fired in the real world for that.

US Blues February 8, 2018 at 9:54 am

When I hear my kids talk of school, it almost always include “we had a sub”.

Its about time someone started watching the “sick” days.

Brenda Wilcox Williams February 8, 2018 at 10:23 am

The data presented did not include absences for bereavement, FMLA, jury duty, child rearing, military leave, professional days, etc. Those were all taken out.

Rem February 8, 2018 at 10:32 am

I finally managed to push some buttons on NoN! Woohoo!!! =D

@Patrick Cooper, I like to protest as much as I can. I need to make up for all the residents who do not protest at all, and statistically there is a lot. I also feel I need to defend the (few? some? many?) teachers who take their jobs seriously and do not abuse the system.

@Patrick Cooper, I once worked at a high-pressure international services company in which accumulated overtime could be used for time off. Obviously HR had to manage requests appropriately but it was easily feasibility to take off a month or more. I’m sorry if you were not aware of this possibility in your own personal knowledge. But you’re certainly right, that amongst highly developed countries, the US has the worst PTO. Perhaps more PTO could “make America great again”?

I’m all for performance reviews. The school system already does classroom observation though. But union or no, those of you who have the most concern should really take a look at addressing the root causes and not merely address the symptoms by instituting more bureaucratic overhead, that, yes, taxpayers pay for. Are there performance reviews for all of the programs initiated by NPS? And do you have a third-party to properly assess those programs so they are worth it for taxpayers?

MarjorieM February 9, 2018 at 10:33 am

Perhaps those who complain about teacher absences need to come in as substitutes and be around students who come in with temperatures, disgusting, runny noses, stomach viruses, conjunctivitis and more. The absentee situation would improve if parents kept their children home who are really sick. Maybe the wealthier communities are able to find someone to watch their children if the child is sick. It may be different for a parent who can’t afford to take a day off if their child complains of not feeling well in the morning. Additionally, teachers can’t leave their classrooms to go to the bathroom without coverage. Think about that. I won’t go into the details of why that might cause females to take a sick day. I am surprised the average for sick days is not higher.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 9, 2018 at 2:57 pm

@MarjorieM, the statistics compare Norwalk teachers to teachers across the state, not just those from affluent towns. There are many towns in CT much less well off than Norwalk. Even if more sick Norwalk kids go to school than sick Westport kids, infecting more teachers, and even if Norwalk teachers get their periods twice as often, that does not explain the distribution of Friday absences.

NTS February 9, 2018 at 8:12 pm

If Norwalk teachers are out on Fridays more often than teachers in other districts, maybe that says something about what it is like to work in Norwalk compared to other districts.

MarjorieM February 9, 2018 at 9:21 pm

Donna, perhaps a better study would be to compare Norwalk to similar cities. The average for CT does not tell us what we need to know. We need to compare similar populations with the same Free and reduced lunch numbers as Norwalk, or socioeconomic levels as Norwalk. If the numbers hold true, then this is a fair comparison. I continue to stand by my statement that I am surprised that teachers aren’t sick more often, given their exposure to so many viruses.

Enough February 10, 2018 at 6:57 am

You all hide behind your key boards and complain constantly about teachers this, teachers that, come do our job. I challenge you to do our jobs for one week and you would be singing a different tune. Granted there are people who abuse the system, but that’s any job you find those types of people.

U.S. Blues February 10, 2018 at 12:28 pm

If more teachers are sick on Fridays, it has nothing to do with comparisons to other “like” cities. It has a lot to do with the integrity of the teachers.

MarjorieM February 10, 2018 at 3:56 pm

U.S. Blues, one piece you are not taking into account is, are the same teachers taking Fridays off? If so, question those teachers. To bash the teachers in general is totally uncalled for. I have known teachers who have tried to make it to work during the week, and hoped if they took Friday off, they would have three days to get better. Stop criticizing all teachers without doing further research.

U.S. Blues February 10, 2018 at 6:11 pm

Unless that is publicized I can only use the data as presented and I’m not convinced that it’s different teachers.
Marj, u can be the cheerleader all you want, you will never convince me that these are “poor teachers” getting a bad rap.

Joe February 10, 2018 at 8:58 pm

Too much money in the ed system creates terrible inefficiencies. And the kids suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives.

Eliminate the state MBR and then we have real leverage to get the best value for our money.

You can’t expect better results without the fear of consequences.

We’re dealing with people here, not angels.

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