New Britain Calls On Parents To Send Children to School Daily

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NEW BRITAIN — City school attendance statistics show widespread, chronic absenteeism in recent years, and educators are planning the second round of a full-scale campaign to change that pattern.

The schools are focusing on kindergarten and the elementary grades, where many people are surprised to learn that absenteeism is severe. A major drive last year paid big results in kindergarten and first grade, and educators want to continue that progress.

“The year before, there was 30 percent chronic absenteeism in our kindergartens – that’s a startling number,” said Joe Vaverchak, attendance director for the system. “Last year that came down to 17.5 percent. In first grade, we brought it from 24 percent down to 13.5. That’s huge.”

Many parents and other taxpayers think absenteeism is trouble only at the middle school and high school age groups, but it’s common — and damaging — much earlier.

“Nationally, when students in kindergarten and first grade are out at least 18 days a year, the percentage of them being proficient at reading by the end of grade three is just 17 percent,” Vaverchak said. “Think about it – 83 percent of those kinds aren’t proficient. That’s staggering. It affects future math scores, it affects the dropout rate. Talk about setting kids up for failure.”

School administrators want to get parents, guardians and other care-givers on board with the idea that cutting classes is damaging youngsters’ chances for a quality education.

One of Superintendent Kelt Cooper’s “back to basics” goals is to get students in class consistently. Last year he directed principals to develop school-by-school strategies to make that happen.

The underlying premise is simple: Teaching will be more effective if students are in the classroom. Initiatives such as extended-day kindergarten and longer school weeks won’t help if youngsters aren’t there, educators say. New Britain says chronic absenteeism applies to any student who misses more than 10 of the school year’s 180 days; too often such students can’t or don’t catch up with the missed lessons, and begin a long-term pattern of under-achievement.

“The impact of chronic absence hits low-income students and children of color particularly hard if they don’t have the resources to make up for lost time in the classroom and are more likely to face systemic barriers to getting to school – such as unreliable transportation, lack of access to health care, unstable or unaffordable housing,” the school board said last week in designating September as attendance awareness month.

The state education department funded two part-time attendance monitors last year who coordinated the efforts of social workers, teachers and outside agencies to get more kindergarteners in school regularly. New funding will cover one of those positions this year, and Vaverchak is still searching for money for the other.

“They work with parents, because the parent engagement piece is huge. They get involved with the school to find out what the root problems are,” Vaverchak said. “Some parents think kindergarten isn’t important, that there’s nothing going on so they won’t miss anything staying home. But in kindergartens and even pre-schools today, they’re working on a lot academically and socially.”

The schools are trying to get all of the staff focused on student attendance.

“Some parents are afraid to talk with a social worker or principal, but they might talk to the gym teacher or the school nurse or the bus driver,” Vaverchak said.

The schools are hosting a back-to-school orientation and breakfast for all elementary and middle school students on Aug. 29, and plan to reach out to parents throughout the year to emphasize why it’s vital to ensure their children are in class every day.

Text by Don Stacom, Hartford Courant; video by Jan Carabeo, Fox CT

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