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If You’re Not in Class... PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 30 June 2010 07:09

One of the New York State Lottery’s recent advertising slogans was You‘ve Got to Be In It to Win It.

In education, we can adopt a similar refrain: if you’re not in class, you won’t pass.  Attendance is key to school success.  Of course, attendance alone is not sufficient – describing what makes for an effective school would be a different essay – but we can all agree that the best school in the world can have no impact on the children who are not there.

While this may be obvious to educators, social workers and other youth advocates, there are numerous, complex reasons why so many young children miss so much of the school year. During the 2007-08 academic year, an astonishing 90,000 of New York City’s elementary-age children missed a month or more of school!

This is not an isolated phenomenon.  Nationally, chronic early absence (defined as missing 10% or more days over the course of a school year, whether excused or unexcused, in the early grades) is a widespread problem.  According to a 2008 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), an estimated 10% of kindergarten and first grade students nationally are chronically absent.  The true extent of the absences can be masked when attendance data is tracked for a school as a whole, rather than for individual students.   A school might have a relatively strong attendance rate of 95%, but still have high chronic absenteeism among particular students.  To be effective, you need systems to track individual attendance and intervene as soon as problems are apparent. 

According to a 2008 report by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, “Chronic absenteeism is disproportionately a problem in elementary schools that serve mostly poor black and Latino children. It contributes to the achievement gap between these children and their white and middle class peers.” 

And the NCCP report notes that poor children who were chronically absent in kindergarten had the lowest performance in reading and math in fifth grade.  Chronic absence even affects students who have good attendance records, since teachers have to take class time to repeat material or provide extra help to chronically absent children.

The reasons for chronic early absence are complex. According to The New School report, they include:

•    Children’s chronic health problems, such as asthma.

•    Family instability, caused by uncertain living conditions (e.g., a family’s stay in homeless shelters), or by maternal illness or mental illness.

•    Transportation problems, including erratic school bus service, especially a problem for special education students and children with disabilities.

•    Schools themselves, such as relocation of a school or grade to another building, or an unwelcoming school culture.

The good news is that we know how to address the problems that contribute to early absence.   The New School report called attention to an effective school-based strategy that can address chronic absenteeism:  the community schools strategy. Through this approach, individual schools establish long-term partnerships with community-based organizations that add human and financial resources to the work of educators.  There are thousands of community schools across the United States and around the world. Here in New York City, The Children’s Aid Society partners with the Department of Education in 22 public community schools in the low-income communities of East Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan, the South Bronx, and the north shore of Staten Island.   Community schools can combine early childhood, health services, social services, extensive after-school and summer enrichment programs and family engagement offerings in ways that help address many of the problems cited by The New School report.

For example, quality early education programs housed in community schools can help families establish morning routines early, before kindergarten.  Children and families get in the habit of setting an alarm clock, eating breakfast and walking to the school or bus stop together.  The school in turn welcomes the parents, supports the families and helps them learn how to engage in their children’s education. If a child attends a good early childhood program – pre-K or Head Start included – he or she has at least two years to establish these good habits, and parents have these years to resolve transportation issues and other challenges.  In addition to our school-based Head Start and pre-K programs, Children’s Aid’s Early Head Start programs in three elementary schools begin this process even earlier, establishing a bond with a family before birth.

In each Children’s Aid community school, all students have access to medical, dental and mental health professionals, who keep students current with physicals and vaccinations, provide emergency care and help students manage chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes, keeping them in school instead of at a clinic or in the emergency room (and helping a parent avoid losing time and wages too).  A 2009 study of Children’s Aid community schools by an outside evaluator found that in 2007-08, three elementary schools in Washington Heights had attendance that ranged individually from 92.59% to 93.77%, ranking them from 70 percent to 85 percent along the comparative attendance continuum from worst to best peer schools. The study also found that “schools with on-site health clinics tend to have higher attendance than those without.” Five of the six intermediate schools in Washington Heights (all with on-site school health centers) ranked over 80 percent on the comparative attendance continuum that year, with two schools ranking over 90% on that continuum (with individual attendance averages of 94.78% and 95.9% respectively).

     The Children’s Aid Society operates on-site school-based health clinics in five schools; in other sites, we link children to community clinics operated by Children’s Aid or other partners.

Schools have to make regular student attendance their priority, too, by keeping track of the attendance of individual students, establishing clear and consistent early warning systems and working with community partners to address underlying causes.   One of the additional benefits of the community school strategy is that there are additional adults in community schools all day, every day – including in after-school and summer enrichment programs.   These adults work as teams to keep closer track of children, observing absences and following up with families.

Much of this work promotes child health and family stability and thus helps children maintain better attendance.  The community school staff can connect families with help with housing to avoid homelessness, provide immigration information, facilitate enrollment in public health insurance and provide advice about other public benefits or can help families access emergency cash assistance if needed.

The consensus for community schools is growing.  Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said that “poor children will excel academically only if they have adequate health care, family support and mental health services.” And last October, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that “community schools [should be] the norm for every single student.”  

To be sure, other organizations in New York City also work within schools to provide additional services with good results.  While Children’s Aid agrees with Secretary Duncan that every school should be a community school, we also recognize that all schools can adopt short-term strategies that could mitigate chronic early absence now.  Community schools, however, knit together webs of supports that remove many of the obstacles that keep children from attending school regularly, and maintain staffs of experts in school all day that are able to assist parents overcome additional problems that may keep a child away.  

Chronic early absence, with its complex causes, can be addressed by multifaceted strategies so families can overcome obstacles and support their children’s journeys to productive adulthood. 

Richard R. Buery, Jr. is President and CEO of The Children’s Aid Society.

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