GOOD

Mind the Gap: Taking Attendance

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An inner-city schoolteacher on the challenges of getting his kids to come to school.

I start each class with a hearty call-and-response of either "Good morning" or "Good afternoon." When I have class first period, however, there is no need to bellow—I oftentimes have so few students that I can easily greet each one individually.

Attendance is an enormous problem at my school and at many others throughout the city. Absenteeism is one issue, lateness is another, but poor attendance overall is a significant factor in students’ chronic low achievement.

Starting a class with a smattering of students or teaching an incomplete class creates a litany of problems. On Monday, for instance, I had four students at the start of first period. A colleague of mine routinely has only half of his high school freshmen present. Most importantly, students are missing out on opportunities to learn and are thus creating gaps in their knowledge. Less significant but still relevant is teachers’ morale, which really takes a hit when, day after day, only a handful of students are there for the lesson they dutifully prepared with 20-something students in mind.

Students at my school miss class for a variety of reasons. First, there are students with family obstacles, like Jalene, a student and mother who has been absent 30 days and late 67 others. Myriad other family issues, like babysitting younger relatives, bringing a parent to the hospital, visiting relatives from out-of-town and so on, account for more than their fair share of absences and lateness. Some of my students are responsible for taking their siblings to school before they walk through our doors (which, in New York City, can mean a cross-borough or cross-city trek). Other students wake up before their parents, who may work a night shift or not work at all, responsible for readying themselves for school each morning.

Second, there are students generally uninterested in school. This occurrence is universal, of course, and includes all types of students. At my school, however, there is a disturbing trend of the more academically advanced students in my grade expressing apathy toward school (which I believes stems from how rarely us teachers actually challenge them). The most intelligent student in my grade has been absent 29 times and late 54 times.

Third, there is the aforementioned issue of toughness. Part of the reason I had four students in class Monday was because it was raining, and some of my students refused to make the trip in poor weather. Students have missed school because of being sore from an after-school pilates class and from staying up too late playing video games, among other reasons.

Fourth, there are logistical constraints. I teach urban students, many of whom rely on mass transit to get to school. A delay in their commute can throw the morning into chaos. While most students pay for their fares with a MetroCard provided by the Department of Education, if the card gets lost, they are frequently on their own until the next distribution period. As a result, I had a student last year come late to the end-of-year high-stakes test because she had lost her MetroCard and couldn’t find the $2.25 needed to cover her fare. (I told her she should have just jumped the turnstile.) Many of my students also seek medical care from emergency rooms or clinics that do not take appointments. Students have lost entire days of instruction while simply waiting to see a doctor.

What can be done? Parental involvement is a good place to start. The overwhelming majority of parents I have reached out to on attendance-related issues have been helpful in improving their child's attendance. I have called parents asking them to find an actual babysitter or to reschedule a (non-emergency) doctor’s appointment. Generally, parents are happy to comply when they see their student’s teacher looking for ways to get their son or daughter to class.

More meaningful, engaging teaching would also help. If there weren't such variance in teacher quality, students wouldn't pick and choose when to come to school.

Other possible remedies, like New York City’s truancy court, reflect the education establishment’s admission that there are few easy levers they can pull to increase attendance.

On Wednesday, however, I managed to pull off a real trick—every one of my students who had come to class in the last month was in school. Long-term absentees notwithstanding, we had perfect attendance.

Their motivation was a mock Regents exam, a three-hour, practice version of the high-stakes test my students will take in a month’s time. Simply finishing the entire mock exam earned the students 100 points. I had told them more than a week in advance about the exam, and the office staff and I called home that morning to track down late arrivals.

On Thursday, though, we were already back to normal—during second period I had five students who showed up on time, 10 who walked in late, and another five that never came to school at all.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.


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