When families face multiple barriers to their well-being at home, children experience the effects in school as well. Housing instability, health concerns, financial hardships, and other domestic problems can repeatedly take children out of school, creating a dangerous pattern of chronic absenteeism.
That’s why Children’s Aid has built attendance awareness into our work, whether it’s through our collective impact work in the South Bronx, our leadership on community schools across New York City, or any of the other ways we work to encourage the success of young people in school.
It all starts in pre-K. Even at this early level, chronic absence can damage a child’s academic career. So we work to make sure that families in our services understand the importance of having their children attend school every day. In addition to classroom teachers, family advocates at our pre-k sites are a crucial first point of contact with our families to help them develop strong attendance records. Family advocates will call home to ask parents why their child is absent. Milagros Espaillat, who works at P.S. 5 in Washington Heights, is a pioneer in employing this tactic to track absences in her pre-k program.
“We had a lot of parents who were confused about what would qualify their children to stay at home,” said Milagros.
A barking cough, a tired toddler, or unpleasant weather are not reasons to keep children from home at school, Milagros explains to her parents. She encourages parents to still bring their children in, even though the school day is already in session. In addition to a school-based health clinic, P.S. 5 has licensed social workers and psychologists on site to navigate families through any crisis.
“Bring them in because we can take care of them here,” Milagros reassures families. The calls and the check-ins have helped. P.S. 5 began to see stronger attendance patterns. And families began to see glimpses of the long-term results.
Tamara Royal, director of Head Start at P.S. 5, heard back from a client whose son recently graduated from her site’s pre-K program. The mother shared that her son’s kindergarten teachers were impressed and thanked Tamara and her team for preparing her son.
Tamara in turn commended the mother for her efforts.
“I told her, ‘He wouldn’t have been so prepared if he missed school. It’s because you brought him to school every day.’”
Establishing this foundation early is absolutely critical and is just as relevant for kids in elementary school and each successive level. As children advance in school, our work against chronic absenteeism changes shape to better support their needs.
One of our most successful tactics is through mentoring. We employ the Success Mentors model in many of our elementary- and junior high-level community schools, and a similar model with teens in high school.
The Success Mentors model pairs students who are chronically absent from school with adult mentors responsible for checking in on these young people regularly over the course of the academic year. Depending on where a student is on the chronic absentee spectrum, success mentors adjust their tactics to support the student. Their outreach ranges from welcoming students upon arrival in the mornings to calling parents at home when they see a student isn’t in school that day. The model, first implemented in 2013, is currently in eight Children’s Aid community schools. Many of the mentors work in partnership with attendance support teams to track student absences and strategize ways to promote a strong attendance-oriented school culture.
The C.S. 61 team in the South Bronx has accomplished this feat. During the 2014-2015 school year, 60 percent of students who had been either chronically or severely chronically absent in the previous academic year improved enough to shed themselves of that distinction. Put another way, they missed less than 10 percent of the school year.
Our community school team and school staff decided to raise the bar even higher this year. During the first full week of classes this year, C.S. 61’s attendance support team led the entire school community, grades pre-K-5, in an attendance rally that outlined the community’s goals for the 2016-17 academic year. Every student was going to strive for fewer than five days absent during the school year. Success Mentors created slogans and helped students design posters for the rally. The event set a positive tone for the remainder of the school year.
“We wanted to reinforce the importance of coming to school every day in a way that would get every student involved,” said Stacey Campo, community school director. “We want students to encourage one another to be here and on time.”
Although Attendance Awareness Month wraps up in September, our commitment to helping children attend school every day is year round. And we will continue to aid them in their academic success every step of the way.