Hartford Targets School Absenteeism

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Text by Vanessa de la Torre, Hartford Courant; video by Angelica Spanos, Fox CT

HARTFORD — The message at city schools is succinct: Every day matters.

“There’s nothing more important than getting kids to show up for school,” Sen. Chris Murphy said Monday.

Murphy visited Burns Latino Studies Academy as part of Hartford’s new “Attendance Awareness” initiative, a public campaign to address the problem of chronic absenteeism that Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said is hurting the city’s education reform efforts.

A quarter of Hartford’s roughly 22,000 students met the definition of chronic absenteeism last academic year by missing more than 18 days, or 10 percent, of school, according to 2012-13 district data. Those absences include days that are excused or unexcused, regardless of the reason.

Schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism are typically schools that also struggle with academic performance, Kishimoto said, a reason why the district plans to work with community groups to target neighborhoods and educate families in coming months.

At Burns, a prekindergarten to eighth grade school in the Frog Hollow neighborhood, 43.2 percent of students were chronically absent in 2012-13, one of the highest rates in the city. Clark Elementary School in the North End had a 47.6 percent rate.

Chronic absenteeism was especially prominent in the city’s non-magnet high schools. At Weaver High’s Culinary Arts Academy, nearly two-thirds of students missed more than 18 days of school last academic year. Citywide, 22 percent of ninth- and 11th-graders had “severe” chronic absenteeism, which means they were absent for at least 20 percent, or 36 days, of school.

Researchers have linked chronic absenteeism with a growing achievement gap between poor and wealthier students. They have also found that regularly missing days of school, even in elementary grades, is a major indicator of which students fall behind and eventually drop out of high school.

A 2012 study from Johns Hopkins University that examined data from six states reported that up to one-third of students in impoverished urban areas were chronically absent.

The national rate is estimated at 10 percent, but could be as high as 15 percent, the report stated. Precise figures are difficult to obtain because most states and school districts report only average daily attendance, a different statistic that educators and researchers say does not tell the full story.

In Hartford, average daily attendance was about 90 percent the past three years, while the statewide average was 94.7 percent in 2011-12.

When a student “misses a day here and a day there, it might not seem like much,” Kishimoto said Monday. “But the cumulative effect on that child is seen in that child’s academic record.”

Low-income students — often those in most need of daily schooling to overcome their life circumstances — are more likely to be chronically absent, according to the Johns Hopkins study, which cited a host of reasons that include illness, family responsibilities, unstable housing, involvement with the juvenile justice system, and avoiding school because of harassment or bullying.

Burns seventh-grader Kassandra Grant, 12, said family problems and fear of getting into a fight at school are two reasons why classmates have been absent, at least in the past.

In some cases, though, “I think they just don’t care,” said schoolmate Joel Oyola, 14, who is in eighth grade. That’s a sad prospect, he added, because “without them, our school would be nothing.”

A focus in Hartford is “how do we as a community work to remove some of those obstacles,” said Eddie Genao, the district’s head of early literacy and parent engagement. Another is changing the perception that prekindergarten is simply “day care.”

In pre-K and kindergarten, crucial years for early literacy, 30 percent of Hartford students were chronically absent last academic year, data show.

City schools are working with the Hartford Campaign for Grade-Level Reading on September’s “Attendance Awareness” initiative, part of a national effort to publicize the impact of chronic absenteeism, particularly in the early grades when students are forming their academic and social skills.

Susan Dunn, president and CEO of the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, read an official proclamation Monday from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that declared September Attendance Awareness Month in Connecticut.

Hartford’s campaign features partnerships with United Way, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, YMCA, Hartford Public Library, the city’s Department of Families, Children, Youth and Recreation, reform advocacy group Achieve Hartford! and several other community organizations.

On Thursday afternoon, family festivals with arts and games are planned at Burns and two other city schools, Dwight-Bellizzi and Burr, where children and adults will be asked to take an attendance pledge, organizers said. The festivals are sponsored by United Technologies Corp. and United Way.

Bilingual school messages to families, letters to faith-based leaders, radio spots — “Let’s work together to get all kids to school, on time, every day,” Kishimoto says in a public service announcement — and at least one community forum are also planned this month.

In addition, the Hartford and New Britain school systems have partnerships with Attendance Works, a national initiative, to track and improve attendance in their city schools. In New Britain, school officials say that a full-scale effort lowered chronic absenteeism among kindergartens to 17.5 percent in 2012-13, an improvement over the previous rate of 30 percent.

The state funded two part-time attendance monitors last year who coordinated New Britain’s initiative to get more kindergartners in class regularly, which included working with teachers, social workers and outside agencies, according to the district.

Attendance efforts continue as a major focus under New Britain Superintendent Kelt Cooper.

Under state law, truancy is when a student has four unexcused absences in one month or 10 unexcused absences in any one school year. Hartford schools made about 200 referrals for truancy to the state’s Family with Service Needs program during the 2012-2013 year after exhausting other options, schools spokesman David Medina said.

That program involves intervention services from the state Department of Children and Families.

Burns Principal Monica Brase said the 2012-13 year, her first as principal, was largely spent improving the school climate and raising expectations for students and parents.

This year, Brase is asking the state to fund a full-time attendance case manager as part of a school improvement plan. Burns currently has an attendance team with community partners and has begun recognizing students and classrooms with good attendance, she said.

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