The Children's Aid Society Community Schools Embrace September as Attendance Awareness Month

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September 2013 is the first-ever National Attendance Awareness Month and, as one of the collaborating partners, The Children’s Aid Society National Center for Community Schools is encouraging our schools and our clients’ schools to participate in this crucial effort. Our goal is to convey one of the campaign’s key messages, “Absenteeism is a problem long before students start skipping classes in high school” --something many parents tend to ignore or do not know.

New research shared recently by Attendance Works, the lead organization behind this effort, details how chronic absence as early as pre-kindergarten can keep children from acquiring key literacy and math skills.  The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study shows that students who attend preschool regularly are significantly more likely than chronically absent preschoolers to be ready for kindergarten and to have better attendance habits later.  

Solid research also shows that missing 10% of the school year—that’s just 18 days, or two or three days per month—in the early grades can leave many students struggling throughout elementary school, putting them at high risk of eventually dropping out of high school.

Across our schools, we are celebrating National Attendance Awareness Month by capitalizing on back-to- school activities to create consciousness at every level–among students, parents, educators and staff.  All this happens in conjunction with several mechanisms already in place at our schools to minimize causes of absenteeism, such as comprehensive school-based health services, family engagement programs, expanded learning opportunities, creating a welcoming atmosphere for parents and helping improve school climate, among others.

Myrna Torres, deputy director of the CAS School-Age Division, believes that it is strategic to put the spotlight on attendance during the back-to-school phase. “It is easier to create momentum at this time, and it sends a powerful message about what our goals are for the year, setting the tone from early on,” she says. “We have to ensure we are conveying a consistent message; parents, in particular, must know that it’s crucial for children to attend school every day, from pre-k to high school, unless there is a serious medical reason, or other critical circumstances.   Families must understand the strong connection between building sound attendance habits early on and the long-term success of children in school and in life“.

We will reinforce these messages by displaying the campaign’s posters around our schools throughout the year, by implementing a Success Mentor Program and by expanding interventions such as one piloted last year that Torres grades as very effective. “We had an advocate counselor at one of our middle schools, working closely with 20 chronically absent students who were in danger of not graduating,” she notes. “Eighteen of them did.  This is an example of what can happen when we are able to take a comprehensive approach to reengage students. This advocate counselor met with the students and their families regularly, and offered case management services.”

Another successful example to prevent chronic absenteeism is the work that P.S. 50, a CAS K- 8 school in East Harlem, does with homeless children. “Two years ago we established an attendance committee at P.S. 50 to work with chronically absent children, most of whom lived in shelters,” observes Jeanette Then, CAS community school director.  “The program began after school and became school-wide when the principal noticed that the students we were working with had dramatically improved their attendance and performance during the regular school day.”

She adds that the committee analyzes the school data to target and intervene early. “We use individual and group techniques,” she says. “We group children from the same shelter so that they can come to school together. We power-greet kids every day when they get to school, even if they are late. We make sure they are fed and clean before getting to class. We also meet regularly with parents, and help create support networks among them. We help families become acquainted with services in the neighborhood and try to meet daily with kids during recess—they willingly give up their recess time to meet with us. Enrolling kids in the after-school program also helps because usually kids love after-school and they know they have to come to regular school to be able to attend.”

To reengage chronically absent students, everyone must get involved: educators, after-school programs, government, businesses, students and parents. Sarah Jonas, NCCS director of regional initiatives who  has led our three-year efforts with the Mayor’s Interagency Task Force Every Student, Every Day Initiative, reminds us that it’s not just parents who must get the message. “Schools very often fail to acknowledge the great cost of chronic absenteeism,” she says.  “They may report high attendance in the aggregate yet fail to track chronic absence of individual children.”