Our Perspective - September 2012
New Britain Schools Boss: Kids Need to Show Up for Class
By Kelt Cooper
When I took charge of New Britain’s public schools this year, I
was struck by two numbers: The city’s dropout rate hovered just below
And the chronic absence rate - the proportion of
students missing 10 percent or more of school days - stood at 42 percent
among high school students. You don’t need a Ph.D in education to see
the connection there. Kids need to show up to succeed in school.
That’s what’s driving my proposal to fine truant students $75 for every day
they are caught skipping school. But when it comes to improving
attendance, that’s not the only strategy we are working on.
The truth is, our absenteeism problem extends beyond high school and beyond
truancy. Last year, nearly 2,500 of our students were chronically
absent, and more than a third of them were in elementary school.
In fact, the highest absenteeism rate before high school comes in
kindergarten, where 29 percent of students were chronically absent. Of
course, absenteeism, particularly in the early grades and sometimes for
older students, isn’t always about kids skipping school. Illness, family
vacations and other excused absences account for many of the missed
But, excused or not, these absences add up to lost
instructional time for the kids who most need that time on task.
National studies show that children who miss 10 percent of school days
in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to master reading by
third grade and more likely to be held back. As you might suspect, that
shows up in our achievement gaps and eventually, our dropout rates.
We also took a look at how many elementary students had what we consider
satisfactory attendance, meaning they missed nine or fewer days a year.
Less than half the elementary school population met that bar.
So what can we do about this?
We’ve already taken the first step, which is digging deep into our attendance
data to assess the magnitude of our chronic absence problem and to look
for patterns that might lead to solutions. We are working with the
national organization Attendance Works to evaluate our data and to train
principals and teachers about how interpret absenteeism trends and take
The next step is expanding how I use my megaphone as superintendent to establish that the school district takes
attendance very seriously. This is why I’ve am joining Attendance Works
and the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading as an early adopter in
their Superintendents Call to Action.
The Campaign is working with coalitions in 124 communities, including New Britain’s own
grade-level reading effort, to increase the number of low-income
children reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Students who
don’t reach that milestone are four times more likely to leave high
school without a diploma. The Campaign has identified chronic absence in
the early grades as one of the key stumbling blocks for early literacy
and is working to improve attendance. It’s a goal I share.
that, we plan to engage the entire community in improving school
attendance. This is a goal the district shares with the Community
Foundation of Greater New Britain, the New Britain Early Childhood
Collaborative and our city’s business and civic leaders who continue as
strong partners in this effort.
It’s tempting to think our hands
are tied because attendance is a parental responsibility. But the
reality is the New Britain community can do plenty to help families get
their children to school every day.
In Baltimore, for instance,
city social workers found that a third of chronically absent students in
kindergarten through second grade needed medical attention for their
asthma. Healthcare providers helped turn around an attendance problem.
In Providence, teachers found that parents who worked overnight shifts
were falling asleep before bringing their children to school. An early
day care program helped resolve that issue.
We’ve got good work
going on in New Britain, too. Vance Elementary School, for example, was
recognized last year for having the best student attendance in the
district. The administrators there use simple, low-cost approaches to
achieve their results.
They talk to every parent about the
importance of getting their kids to school every day, and they get those
parents on the phone when there’s a problem. They honor students in
attendance assemblies, and they raffle off scooters to those with the
fewest absences. They’ve even gone to pick up students when they miss
the bus. Most importantly, the school creates an engaging learning
environment that has kids eager to come to school every day.
This year we are creating two new positions in the district to help our 10
elementary schools reduce chronic absence in kindergarten. They will
work with school staff to engage parents in their children’s education
and help them help their kids to build good attendance habits from the
get go. This habit will carry them through school and right into college
and a career.
Ultimately we know what we need to do to turn around our attendance problem and our academic challenges. We need to
offer engaging coursework and teachers that motivate students to come to
school every day. We need parents, faith leaders, businesses and
nonprofits working together to ensure students come to school on time
every day. We need to make sure we’ve done all we can to see that all
children show up for school so they have an equal opportunity to learn
Cooper is superintendent of The Consolidated School District of New Britain.