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POOR SCHOOLS NEED SUBS MORE

Teachers in high-poverty schools are absent more often, a national report shows, and student achievement suffers.

Teacher absences are eating up $4-billion a year and contributing to the achievement gap between white and minority students, according to a national report released today.

The report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress points to research that shows teachers in high-poverty schools are missing more days than peers in more affluent schools. It also suggests, based on new research by its author, that some schools have an "absence culture."

To fill the gaps, schools often rely on less-qualified substitute teachers. And the end result is student achievement suffers, said Raegen T. Miller, the report's author and a senior education policy analyst at the center.

"The suffering is in little drips and drabs, but it adds up," he said.

In Pinellas, eight of 11 schools with the highest rates of teacher absences last year had a majority of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, while four of 11 with the lowest rates did.

Orange Grove Elementary in Seminole had the best attendance, with teachers averaging 4.5 absences due to sick leave and personal leave. The district average was 7.4 days.

Teachers at Sanderlin Elementary in south St. Petersburg averaged 9 absences.

"When you're working in a (high-poverty) school and you're implementing a tough program, you may need a breather," said Sanderlin principal Denise Miller.

Sanderlin is a countywide magnet, with a primary years International Baccalaureate program. Seventy-seven percent of its students last year were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; 72 percent were minorities.

School-by-school data on average teacher absences was not immediately available for Hillsborough or Pasco counties.

Education researchers have found teachers in the United States are absent about 5 percent of the time (between 9 and 10 days a year) compared with less than 3 percent for workers overall.

Poverty isn't the only reason."A lot of that's driven by things you don't measure ... the kind of leadership in the building, the principal that's there," he said.

The costs add up. Hillsborough spent $11-million on substitutes last year. Pinellas spent $5.9-million.

And academically, researchers from Duke and Harvard separately found that for every 10 teacher absences, a student's achievement in math dropped as much as if he or she had a rookie teacher instead of an experienced one.

To curb those effects, the new report suggests districts experiment with incentives. It cites a Texas district that rewards excellent attendance (two absences or fewer) by putting $200 to $400 more into the teacher's 401(a) retirement plan.

Around Tampa Bay, the incentives are less generous and/or less immediate. In Hillsborough, each school is allotted a set amount of substitute days, and when those run out, teachers must cover for each other. In Pasco, teachers can claim payment for unused leave after retirement or resignation.

In Pinellas, schools with the best teacher attendance get a small pot of money that goes back into their budgets. Last year, 11 schools split $6,870.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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