NEW YORK — The firing of the principal of the Shuang Wen School for manipulating student attendance records prompted a fiery reaction from parents and education advocates — but an investigation by DNAinfo.com New York has found schools around the city are underreporting truancy rates.
In conversations with more than a dozen parents, teachers and advocates, those familiar with the public school system's policies revealed that city principals regularly manipulate city attendance records by removing students' names from the official school register while they are away from the school for long periods of time — and then force parents to re-enroll their children at the school when they return.
The elaborate scheme, which advocates say rose in popularity after the city included attendance in its school rating system, is designed to keep the lengthy absences from hurting the school's overall attendance record, school employees told DNAinfo.com New York.
"It's something the school does … so the absences don't ruin our stats," said a teacher at the George Washington Educational Campus in Washington Heights, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It happens all the time."
The manipulation is particularly common at diverse schools — where many students travel abroad to visit relatives for weeks or months at a time during non-holiday periods of the school year, said those familiar with the problem.
At the elite Shuang Wen School in Chinatown, DOE investigators recently found former principal Ling Ling Chou covered up 716 student absences between 2007 and 2011. Last year the school had a 99 percent attendance rate, one of the highest in the city.
One Shuang Wen parent told investigators that when he took his family on vacation to Disney World, he was forced to un-enroll his children from the school beforehand and re-enroll them when he returned.
Chou admitted the practice to investigators but said she thought it was allowed since she had discussed it with a District 1 supervisor, according to DOE documents. The DOE is in the process of firing Chou, for other alleged misconduct in addition to manipulating attendance records.
The DOE is unaware of allegations that the practice of un-enrolling students is widespread, a spokeswoman said. The chancellor's regulations clearly state that a child can only be removed from the register if the child's family has moved away and the child is enrolled in school elsewhere, DOE investigators said in their report on Shuang Wen.
But many schools, including Shuang Wen, started keeping a closer watch on their attendance rate several years ago, when the city incorporated attendance into the school's all-important report card grade, parents said.
Since schools that do poorly on their report cards are targeted for closure, many principals try to do everything they can to improve their attendance numbers, said Lisa Donlan, president of the District 1 Community Education Council.
That is especially true in the Lower East Side's culturally diverse District 1, where many families return to their home country for a month or more around Christmas — often leaving in early December and staying until late January to avoid paying high-priced holiday airfares, Donlan said.
"It's a combination of culture and finances," Donlan said of the reason for the long absences. "The schools don't necessarily want to pay a price for that . . . This is definitely a practice schools have developed to not be punished."
Harvey Epstein, an East Village father and project director at the Urban Justice Center, said he, too, knows of many schools that started altering their attendance records after the city began issuing progress report grades for schools.
"I've heard about it in schools in the neighborhood and I've heard about it citywide," Epstein said.
The practice is so common that some parents are aware of it even before their children start school.
Marjorie Ingall, who has two children at the East Village's Neighborhood School, recalled hearing a mother who was taking a tour of the school ask if she would be able to bring her child on a long trip without the absence being recorded.
The answer, Ingall said, was no — the Neighborhood School doesn't do that.
But many other schools do.
At P.S. 114 in The Bronx, which had a 92 percent attendance rate last year, parents often request that the school un-enroll their child before they take a long trip, out of fear that the string of absences will cause their child to be held back at the end of the year, a former teacher said.
P.S. 114's principal did not return a call for comment.
Schools generally do not fail a child solely because of absences, but if the child is already on the brink of failing, then an attendance rate of less than 90 percent can hurt, said the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The teacher worries that because the absences are not being recorded, it's harder to track the kids who are missing a lot of school, which makes it harder to prevent them from falling behind.
"If you're not in school, you're not learning," the teacher said. "It's being hidden, so it's not being addressed."
The teacher at the George Washington Educational Campus — who estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of the school's students take a long trip with their family each year, mostly to the Dominican Republic — said it was frustrating to see kids disappear and fail their classes.
"Sometimes a kid will come back a month later with a copy of the plane ticket, as though that's an excuse," the teacher said. "Sometimes it's good kids and you feel bad for them. It's the parents making the arrangements, not the kids."
The principals at George Washington — which houses four separate high schools — did not respond to calls for comment.
Other schools that allow parents to un-enroll before long trips include P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side, which had a 96 percent attendance rate last year, and P.S. 132 in Williamsburg, which had a 95 percent attendance rate, parents and staff familiar with the policies said.
Allison Sansoucie, parent coordinator at P.S. 199, gave the example of a child whose parents recently traveled to Florida for six weeks for work. That child was taken off the school register and was re-enrolled when the family returned.
"We usually do it for long-distance travel, if they're going to be out of the country or out of the state for an extended period of time," Sansoucie said.
She added that the directive to remove the traveling children from the register came from the DOE.
Yvonne Garguilo, parent coordinator at P.S. 132, said the school only un-enrolled students when they did not have a definite date of return — for example, when they travel abroad to visit sick relatives. The school has also removed students who leave school in May to go back to their native country for the summer, missing the last month of classes.
Even if the schools are willing to work with families that want to take long trips, parents often find their peers are not so accomodating.
Trish Daley, an Upper West Side mother of three children at P.S. 199, said other parents she knows at the school were critical of her decision to take her kids on a trip back to their native Australia in December that meant they missed more than two weeks of school.
Daley said she did not un-enroll her children and was not asked to re-enroll them upon their return.
While Daley said her children's teachers were supportive and gave them homework to take on the trip, parents warned Daley that the highly regarded elementary school could be penalized for the long absences, including by getting a lower grade or possibly losing funding.
But Daley felt it was more important for her third-grade son and first-grade and second-grade daughters to maintain relationships with the cousins and friends they left behind in Australia when they moved to New York in 2010 than to have a perfect attendance record at school.
"Our kids will eventually go back there," Daley said of Australia. "It's important to have that connection so they don't have a sense of not fitting in when they go back."