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Don't skip: Schools waking up on absenteeism

Would a phone call from Nicki Minaj get you to go to school? Educators and community leaders are trying creative strategies to keep kids from skipping.
Image: School prinicpal watches students
Chris Kinsey, the principal of Chief Sealth International High School, patrols the school's hallways as students make their way to class on Wednesday, Sept. 28. "Being in the classroom, being in the hallway, is very important," Kinsey says, "Especially at the start of the school year."Jim Seida /
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Need help getting out of bed to get to school on time? At North Central High School in Spokane, Wash., students are being urged to sign up for an automated celebrity wake-up call.

"Nobody likes waking up early. That’s a fact," said Rebecca Corsino, a 17-year-old North Central senior. "But even though I don’t like waking up, I like going to school."

On Monday, at least 85 schools in 17 states, representing 88,000 students, are partnering with the Get Schooled Foundation to participate in a seven-week attendance challenge.

As part of the campaign, students can sign up on Get Schooled’s website to receive the taped wake-up calls from entertainers Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, Trey Songz and Ciara.

It's one of a host of strategies, including raffles and prize giveaways, that educators and community leaders are trying to keep kids from skipping school — a strong predictor of achievement and dropout rates.

'Every day in school counts'
Most students will miss a day or two of school occasionally because of illness, and most districts have programs in place to catch students who are frequently truant, often defined as kids who miss at least a month of school during the 180-day year.

But educators and community leaders say the more critical challenge is identifying students before they become regular truants and getting them back to school before they fall behind.

"What we know is, missing as few as three days of school is strongly predictive of lower achievement and missing 10 days of school is predictive of dropping out," said Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, whose office is launching a campaign to improve school attendance this fall. "Every day in school counts."

Students arrive for the beginning of the school day at Chief Sealth International High School on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011.Jim Seida /

Last year’s winner of the Get Schooled challenge, Chicago’s Collins Academy, saw a 7 percent gain in attendance and earned $30,000 in college scholarships from Comcast. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast.)

For many schools across the nation, the timing of the challenge coincides with "count week," typically the first week in October, when attendance is used to determine the level of state funding each district will receive for that school year.

In Ohio, for example, the Dayton Public Schools could lose approximately $5,900 for each unexcused student absence during the week of Oct. 3 through Oct. 7.

While funding is important, that's not all that's at stake.

Statistics show that students with more than 20 absences per year have less than a 1-in-5 chance of graduating. By ninth grade, school attendance is a better predictor of graduation than eighth-grade test scores, according to a 2007 study by the University of Chicago.

Yet thousands of children are still absent from school each day. In New York City, more than 250,000 of the 1.1 million students miss at least a month of school each year.

In Baltimore last year, 5,699 of the district's 83,800 students missed 20 or more days of school. And in Oakland, Calif., nearly 1 in 7 of the district's 46,000 students miss 10 percent, or 18 days, every year.

"One of the ways to address the achievement gap and test scores is to make sure our students are in the classroom and learning," said Chris Kinsey, principal at Chief Sealth International High School in West Seattle, where officials plan to hold contests this fall to promote attendance.

Masking the problem
But many school districts don’t even recognize they have a problem with chronic absenteeism because of the way attendance is measured. Typically, schools track average daily attendance. That approach means a few students with perfect attendance can mask the absences of those who miss many days.

"It’s really an important issue that doesn’t get enough attention," said Sue Fothergill, director of the Baltimore City Student Attendance Initiative, which has been working with the city school district to improve attendance, in part by finding alternatives to disciplinary suspensions and the closing of troubled middle schools.

Baltimore community leaders are stepping up their efforts this fall, using volunteers to canvass neighborhoods with especially high rates of student absenteeism. The goal is to determine why students are chronically absent and then find solutions, such as getting them rides to school or helping them manage health problems like asthma away from home.

"It’s health issues, it could be bullying or social-type issues or family dynamics," said Marie Groark, executive director of Get Schooled. "Usually there’s a lot going on in the family."

Typically, chronic absence is a bigger problem in urban, high poverty school districts, but even affluent suburban districts can see problems when parents pull out their students for extended vacations or let their children stay home for reasons other than illness.

Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center, a research group at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says his analysis shows a district can have a schoolwide average attendance in the 90 percent range with as many as 20 percent of the students missing a month or more of school.

When he studied the attendance problem in Baltimore, he found that up to 20 percent of the students were missing from 90 to 180 school days between the sixth and 10th grades. "That explains a lot," he said.

Chris Kinsey, the principal of Chief Sealth International High School, talks with freshman Trevor Muna, who says he was late to class because he woke up late. \"Being in the classroom, being in the hallway, is very important,\" Kinsey says, \"Especially at the start of the school year.\"Jim Seida /

Such data also help explain why many schools are looking at attendance as part of their core strategy to improve achievement and cut the dropout rate.

"You want to improve test scores? Get your kids to show up," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a policy group focused on chronic absence. "You can innovate all you want, but if the kid’s not there, the benefit from the innovation is going to have limited impact."

'I lost motivation'
Corsino, whose school is taking part in the Get Schooled challenge, knows firsthand how missing school can snowball into a bigger problem. Of the 180 days of her junior year, she missed almost 80. "I lost motivation to get anything done," she said. As she fell further behind, she felt even worse, but credits caring teachers at North Central High for getting her back on track and helping her make up work.

This year, Corsino is serving as president of her school’s Associated Student Body, playing varsity tennis, filling out college applications and working as a mentor to help ninth-graders adjust to high school. The goal is to identify struggling students as soon as possible.

"If we catch them early, we think we can have more of an impact," said Roed Freeland, assistant principal of North Central High.

Because states don't all track attendance the same way, there is no way to gauge whether schools are doing better at dealing with chronic absence. But there are fewer students dropping out of school in general. Between 2000 and 2009, the dropout rate declined from 11 percent to 8 percent of students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Teacher's assistant Brad Olinger, without hat, writes a absense slip for freshman Jay Webber at Chief Sealth International High School on on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. Webber said he was late because he walked too slowly to get to school on time.Jim Seida /

At Chief Sealth High in Seattle, Principal Kinsey spent a recent morning patrolling the hallways, intercepting teens who weren’t in class.

"I walked too slow," freshman Jay Webber explained. Another ninth-grader, Trevor Muna, told Kinsey he woke up late.

"It’s important to be visible in the hallways, especially with the ninth-graders," Kinsey said.

But Kinsey also realizes that getting kids into the building each morning is only part of the battle. And while raffles and contests can help motivate some students, the most effective way to keep them in school is engaging them in the classroom.

"We have to make it so exciting that kids are busting down the doors and want to come," he said.