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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 50 percent.

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 days.

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 appropriate action.

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.

To do 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 and succeed.

Cooper is superintendent of The Consolidated School District of New Britain.

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