By Sharon Otterman
June 16, 2011
At Public School 309 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, students wear necklaces with colorful pendants, each marking a month in which they did not miss a day of school. At P.S. 75 in the South Bronx, a row of young adults welcomes students each morning as they walk in the door. Some 40,000 city children got daily automated wake-up calls from Magic Johnson and other celebrities to remind them to show up for class, and City Hall offered prizes like baseball tickets and gift certificates.
Throughout New York, educators and politicians have been increasing their focus on attendance in recent years, and their efforts appear to be paying off, at least in elementary schools: 1 in 15 elementary students were absent on a given day this year, compared to 1 in 13 four years ago and 1 in 9 in 1995.
And there have been even more significant strides in combating chronic absenteeism in early grades, according to a new study by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School: In the 2009-10 school year, according to the report, there were 105 elementary schools where 30 percent or more of students missed at least a month of class, down from 216 three years earlier.
The problem has hardly disappeared. Last year, at 42 percent of the city’s 700 elementary schools, one in five students missed a month or more of school, according to the New School study. But four years ago, that was true of 58 percent of the schools. And high school attendance is worse and tougher to fix: 34 percent of the city’s high school students missed a month or more of school last year.
“We were surprised by the results,” said Kim Nauer, a New School researcher. “The number of elementary schools with virulent absenteeism problems is going down. But thousands of kids are still in schools where a third of their class might be gone on any given day.”
Researchers and city officials credited the improvements, in part, to a change the Education Department made two years ago in beginning to specifically track chronic absentees, defined as students who miss 20 days or more in a school year, along with tracking average attendance in schools, the traditional benchmark.
“Changing the way we count attendance is so essential to turning things around,” said Hedy N. Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a policy group.
There are countless causes of chronic absenteeism, including illnesses like asthma, safety concerns, transportation problems and lax parents. It is one of the best-known predictors of future dropouts, and according to another new study, a driver of the city’s low test scores.
Following about 64,000 New York City students through third and fourth grades between 2006 and 2008, that study, by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, found that as attendance improved, so did performance on state tests.
It also found that the attendance environment at the school mattered: at schools with high absentee rates, students who improved their individual attendance got less of an achievement bump than those at schools with near-perfect attendance.
Poverty and race are closely tied to chronic absenteeism, the study found. Among black and Hispanic children in the study, more than 90 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch, more than one in five were chronically absent. Asian-Americans had the lowest rate of chronic absenteeism, 4 percent, though 84 percent of them qualified for the lunch program; 12 percent of white students in the study were chronically absent, though they were economically better off.
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s researchers said the predicted improvement on tests from good attendance amounted to a fifth or a quarter of the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian classmates.
At P.S. 309, where the students proudly wear their attendance tags around their necks, chronic absenteeism has fallen from one in four students to one in five over the last two years. This year, the principal, Emily Zucal, began an early-morning fitness program to help lure students, as well as monthly assemblies and pizza parties for those who do not miss a day.
“Kids really want to be called out in front of their peers and be celebrated,” Ms. Zucal said. “And the nice thing is, rewards for attendance are completely blind of everything else, like behavior and grades.”
At P.S. 75, a hulking old school near an entrance ramp to the Bruckner Expressway, a dozen young adults in matching uniforms form a line between the school buses and the entrance door, greeting children with hugs, high-fives and sometimes stickers. They work for City Year, a federal program that places mentors in high-poverty schools.
A spokesman for City Year, Ian Rees, said that in the last year the program had been working to prevent dropouts by focusing on what he called the ABCs: absenteeism, behavior and course performance. A city pilot program allowed City Year mentors at seven schools this year to see student attendance data for the first time, so they could focus their tutoring and attention on students having trouble.
On Tuesday, Shimee Housey, 12, a fifth grader who was frequently late last year, shyly accepted a rainbow sticker from Heather Slivko-Bathurst, 22, one of the mentors, as he arrived at school. “They help kids gather up focus in class, and help us learn,” Shimee said.
City Year had only few thousand dollars to spend on incentives, so mentors offered things like origami fortune tellers with fortune cookies attached for those who showed up early to school. But the City Hall pilot program, which included 25 schools this year and will grow to 50 schools in the fall, offered some richer prizes: for example, Angel Lopez, the fourth grader with the most-improved attendance at P.S. 75, got to stand in center field at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday with other students at a special ceremony before the first pitch.
This year, overall attendance at P.S. 75 improved slightly, following the citywide trend. But among the 130 students with the worst attendance who were the focus of the mentoring, the wake-up calls, help from a health clinic and the incentives, “we’ve seen a lot of dramatic improvements,” Richard Gugliotta, an assistant principal, said.
“If nothing else,” he added, “we were annoying people into bringing their kids to school, which was fine with me.”