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Our Perspective - May 2012

A periodic message from Community Foundation Board Chair, Phyllis Kindelan, and President, Jim Williamson.

What happens if you build it, but they don't come?

Why education reform must address chronic school absence -- and what New Britain is already doing about it.

How should Connecticut's educational system work to reduce our state's worsening achievement gap? What must be done by our communities, city by city and district by district? And, most important, what must be done by our state government in its role as leader and primary funder of our public education system?

This spring, these questions and others are fueling the debate that rages within the Connecticut legislature and in the media about how our schools should be structured and our teachers evaluated. Regardless of one's position on the specifics of the various proposals under consideration, it's important that we understand these fundamentals:

  • Children who don't attend kindergarten and 1st grade regularly are much less likely to read proficiently by 3rd grade than those with good to excellent attendance.
  • Children in poverty are much more likely to lack basic health and safety supports that help them get to school. 
  • Children in poverty who face unstable housing, limited health care, poor transportation and inadequate food and clothing are at much higher risk for absenteeism in preschool, kindergarten and 1st grade. Children unable to read well by the 3rd grade often fall into a pattern of poor attendance and academic failure that fuels an already-unacceptable dropout rate in our urban schools.

 

Nationwide, one in 10 kindergarten and 1st grade students miss nearly a month of school annually. In New Britain, which sadly leads our state in chronic absence rates, nearly a third of our students attended school less than 90 percent of time. If we want our children to graduate from high school, gain additional skills and contribute to a workforce that demands literacy, technological proficiency and a strong work ethic, we must address ways to keep them in school at these early ages.

Over the past seven years, CFGNB and the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative, a member of the Foundation's "First Years First" Initiative, have worked with educators, parents, day care providers and family literacy programs, among others, to double the percentage of children participating in Pre-K programs from 38 percent to its current 79 percent rate -- equal to the state average. That makes our kids more ready to learn at Kindergarten and increases the likelihood that they will read at grade level by the time they get to 4th grade, another key success milestone.

Much of that effort is lost, however, if children don't attend school regularly to build on that basic educational foundation. To address this, last fall CFGNB awarded a $30,000 grant to Attendance Works of San Francisco to launch the Chronic Absence Initiative in partnership with the New Britain School District. Reducing chronic absence, particularly in the early grades, is a key strategy of the new Campaign for Grade Level Reading in New Britain. This Initiative will help the District enhance its school-by-school, class-by-class tracking of chronic absentees, and provide school leaders, parent and community groups with new, proven best practice strategies to make regular school attendance a top priority for parents and other care givers. Attendance Works is nationally known for this work, primarily in the West, and we are proud to bring their expertise here to Connecticut.

So, regardless of the outcome of our current educational reform debate, one thing is clear:  if you build it (a well-supported, well-funded educational system), you can't just assume that students will come. The Foundation recognizes that there are many reasons why families don't make daily school attendance a top priority for their children, some of which are not always under their control. Regardless, we believe that this new community-school partnership will put a bright spotlight on how, together, we can make sure that more of our children take full advantage of our education system.


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