More kids come to school in Schenectady
Free meals tops among reasons for attendance increase
SCHENECTADY Attendance has skyrocketed in the Schenectady City School District, with almost every elementary school student and most older students showing up regularly, according to first-quarter records.
Last year, only 58 percent of the district’s elementary school kids managed to show up at least 90 percent of the time. This year, that jumped to 91 percent.
Statistics show students with 90 percent attendance are likely to graduate from high school, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
“Kids who attended 95 percent of the time or more tend to do very well in school,” he added.
Last year, only 38 percent of the district’s elementary students fell into that category. This year, 78 percent are attending almost every day.
The same trend is happening at the middle and high school levels.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Kate Abbott, the district’s director of instructional support. “It’s quite amazing.”
District officials have focused on attendance for years, hiring attendance deans who drag unhappy teenagers out of bed and adding social workers who can solve problems that often keep children home.
School officials drive students, and their parents, to doctor’s appointments so chronic illnesses — from strep throat to bronchitis — can be finally cured. They find clothes for children who don’t have enough school-appropriate clothing. They track down families who become homeless and make sure they sign up for busing, which is offered so their children can get to school no matter where they’re living.
Through all those efforts, attendance increased slightly.
And then the district added free breakfast and lunch for everyone, paid for through a federal program, and suddenly children started flooding through the doors, district officials. Abbott said it’s too early to be sure what made the difference this year, but school board President Cathy Lewis said the free meals had to play an important role.
“What would happen if we added snacks?” she said half-jokingly as she reviewed the figures.
Spring said the free breakfast seems to be the big draw.
“Last year, we had an enormous number of kids come in late,” he said. “Generally speaking, getting to school in the morning is our tougher issue.”
Now children seem eager to get to school on time, he said.
“Kids don’t generally skip classes they really like,” he said. “They’re getting food. They like that.”
At Hamilton Elementary School, which saw a big increase in attendance, Principal Michelle Van Derlinden said far fewer students are tardy now.
“You know you want to be there, because you’re having breakfast,” she said. “We still have tardies, but they’re reduced, as well.”
Spring also mobilized the district to focus on attendance as soon as he arrived last year. School officials cared about it before, he said, but they didn’t have the technology to address it.
Attendance programs would show, for example, that a school had a 92 percent average daily attendance.
“That’s misleading,” Spring said.
The program didn’t show the few students who had skipped a dozen days of school. They were lumped in with those who had skipped just one day.
Spring also explained to staff “the reality” of the district’s attendance problem.
“Let’s really think what 80 percent attendance means. That’s one absence a week,” Spring said. “Someone who’s getting their kid to school four days a week — that’s a crisis situation. That began to shift how people were thinking about it.”
Statistically, he said, students who came to school less than 80 percent of the time had a “very low” chance of graduating.
Van Derlinden said Spring got her attention.
“Larry Spring has pushed us to really look at it, because if we want students to succeed, they really have to be in school,” she said. “It’s become a priority.”
Still, school officials needed to know which students were missing school that often. Hamilton School social worker Melanie Bennett said even parents often didn’t realize the magnitude of their children’s absences.
“They don’t realize how much it becomes so quickly,” she said.
So school officials began sending home letters that broke down the absences into minutes: 120 minutes of missed reading instruction, 60 minutes of math and so on.
“Sometimes that’s all it takes,” Van Derlinden said.
It took most of the 2012-13 school year, but all teachers and principals now have a computerized attendance program that shows every student’s attendance.
“It shows which ones we need to be really, really concerned about,” Spring said.
Last year, 11 percent of the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders were in school less than 80 percent of the time. That dropped to 8 percent this year. In high school, it dropped from 16 percent to 14 percent.
But the biggest gain at the high school came in the 90-percent attendance category, the category in which students are most likely to graduate. Last year, only 46 percent of the high school students came to school 90 percent of the time. This year, it was 71 percent.
The number of students attending at least 95 percent of the time also nearly doubled. Spring wants that to continue.
“Attendance is critically important,” he said. “If kids are not in school, there’s a 100 percent chance they won’t learn what’s taught that day.”