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The turnaround starts with attendance

South End school battles chronic absenteeism

Blackstone parent-volunteer Perla Soto (above right) signed slips as program manager Kim Bohling checked records. Blackstone parent-volunteer Perla Soto (above right) signed slips as program manager Kim Bohling checked records.
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011
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It was the kind of a morning that school leaders worry about: cold and gusty, with a rain that pelted students on their way to school and gave them an excuse to stay home.

But the early news trickling into the main office at the Blackstone Elementary School was encouraging, as students sporting blue-and-white armbands reported head counts from their homerooms.

Several of these “attendance captains’’ gleefully announced perfect attendance. Others, though, reported one or more absences.

As part of a concerted effort to reverse years of dismal academic achievement, the South End school is cracking down this year on chronic absenteeism, a largely silent epidemic that afflicts many elementary schools nationwide and rarely is addressed, if it all, with the same gusto employed by high schools.

The Blackstone staff has been closely scrutinizing absences among its 600 students and holding competitions among the homerooms for the best monthly attendance record. A dozen City Year volunteers pitch in, keeping tabs on about 150 students with high absenteeism and calling home when they do not show up.

The Blackstone managed to squeak out a small victory on this rainy morning, when absenteeism tends to spike. Some 93 percent of students showed up, slightly lower than the overall attendance rate for the year, but notably higher than last year’s rate of 91.2 percent.

“Kids need to be here,’’ said Allyson Hart, director of student success at the school, who is heading up the attendance initiative. “Learning how to read is their golden ticket.’’

The Blackstone, one of 12 Boston schools declared underperforming by the state last year, has three years to show a dramatic improvement in standardized test scores or it could face a state takeover. The Globe is chronicling the Blackstone’s overhaul.

Across the country, an increasing number of struggling elementary schools are making attendance improvement paramount in their daily operations. The push represents a dramatic departure from the days when most elementary schools focused on attendance only at the end of the year, giving out certificates to students who never missed a day.

Several Boston elementary schools have ramped up attendance efforts this year with assistance of the nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence, as well as City Year. The Boston School Department, working in conjunction with the mayor’s office and the Boston Public Health Commission on boosting student attendance citywide, rolled out a new slogan this year: “Every Day Matters.’’

The stronger emphasis on attendance reflects research showing that chronically absent students in elementary schools tend to do worse in class than those students who show up consistently. The findings are raising questions about whether absentee students are more likely to drop out as teenagers.

Elementary school students are absent for a variety of reasons. Aside from illness, students may miss school because of bullying, homelessness, or domestic abuse or because they missed their bus and have no alternative transportation, educators say.

Some researchers say schools should even scrutinize absences due to illness because those instances could illuminate a lack of access to health care and schools could help connect parents with services.

“If a low-income student is chronically absent in kindergarten, you can predict lower academic outcomes in the fifth grade,’’ said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national initiative that promotes the importance of attendance. “This can set off a big cycle. . . . I don’t think many parents understand at what point absences become problematic.’’

A landmark report three years ago on the New York City school system, which found that 1 in 5 elementary school students were chronically absent, drew national attention and galvanized that city into action.

“In places where absentee rates are so high . . . teachers have to keep reteaching things every day,’’ said Kim Nauer, one of the report’s authors and education project director for The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, a research institute. “This is where the achievement gap accelerates.’’

In elementary schools in such Boston suburbs as Lexington, Newton, and Wellesley, 96 percent or more of students tend to show up every day, according to a Globe review of state data.

At the Blackstone, during the early morning downpour last month, 12 City Year volunteers in their trademark red coats and khakis sang, cheered, and even danced outside as they greeted hundreds of students.

One volunteer, noticing a frown on one young boy who had his brown knit cap pulled down below his eyebrows, asked, “Where’s your smile?’’ After getting no response, the City Year volunteer ran up to him, placed her arm around his shoulder, and chatted with the boy as they walked inside.

Such persistence is a hallmark of the morning greeting, demonstrating to students that the school cares about them and that the daily ritual is more than just show.

The true barometer of the initiative’s effectiveness unfolds every morning in the Blackstone’s main office when the more than two dozen attendance captains deliver head counts for their homerooms. A volunteer then draws in the tallies on a monthly bar chart that is posted for every homeroom on a wall in the main office. The charts are accompanied with other statistics and messages, such as, “Attendance patterns start in elementary school: Make sure your child is in school.’’

Shara Glew, with the hood of her puffy jacket pulled over her head, arrived at the Blackstone with her 9-year-old son, Curtis, about 15 minutes late. They were wet, and she was out of breath.

“We woke up a little late and had to run to my daughter’s bus stop; she goes to a different school,’’ Glew explained. “Then we came here. It’s a few blocks away. We ran, literally.’’

The late arrival enabled Curtis to continue a pattern of perfect attendance that began the previous month after Glew met with staff, who explained that Curtis’s frequent absences were causing him to fall behind.

Hart describes the effort as “changing the behavior of 600 kids,’’ including those in kindergarten and preschool, where attendance is not mandatory under state law. “Sometimes we feel we are exhausting ourselves and spinning our wheels,’’ she said.

The Blackstone hit one of those points this winter as attendance waned in the midst of several snowstorms that covered sidewalks, forcing students to walk in the streets. Some parents, worried about safety and lacking transportation, kept their children at home.

To ramp up the attendance effort, the school decided in March, as MCAS testing was about to begin, to hold an 18-day competition, causing attendance to rise schoolwide as homerooms vied for an ice cream social.

One Friday afternoon, a class of winning fourth-graders piled gummy bears, banana slices, and sprinkles on scoops of ice cream. The competition’s lesson on good attendance was evident among some students, but was forgotten, perhaps temporarily, among others in between the spoonfuls of the tasty treat.

Noting that passing the MCAS was important for students and the school, Christian Aguilar, 10, said: “Everyone came to take the test. We didn’t want to stay home and watch TV.’’

But Ezequiel Rivera, 10, said it was all about the ice cream.

“When someone was not in school, we called them,’’ Ezequiel said. “I’m so happy. When I got the ice cream, my mind exploded.’’

The bottom line, Nauer said, is that attendance can be a good litmus test in determining whether “the school is a place where kids want to go to, as opposed to a place they want to avoid.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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