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Michelle Cortés-Harkins: Providence Children’s Initiative Improving Attendance

Friday, February 10, 2012

 

To learn, a student has to show up. And not just in the later grades, but right from the start. That means kindergarten, even though some, unfortunately, may not understand the importance of kindergarten and the fact that real learning takes place.

An information sheet from Attendance Works, which provided Providence’s chronically absent numbers for a recent GoLocalProv story (“Providence Schools in Crisis: 37% of Students are ‘Chronically Absent’”) advocates the need for building good attendance habits early. “School success goes hand in hand with good attendance!” it states.

The Providence Children’s Initiative agrees, as do our partners in the Providence Public School District. That is why last October we identified dozens of kindergartners who were chronically absent or tardy at Fogarty Elementary in South Providence. In partnership with the school’s principal, Carolyn Johnston, and faculty and staff, we created an attendance team that held parent workshops on school attendance, and offered to work with the kindergartners’ families to help them overcome issues affecting their showing up for school.

The Providence Children’s Initiative is a multi-agency collaboration created by Family Service of Rhode Island in 2010 to improve academic and economic outcomes in low-income neighborhoods. Our efforts, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, are currently focusing on South Providence. (Click here for a short video about the Providence Children’s Initiative.)

What kind of issues are families with chronically absent or tardy youngsters facing? A sampling from our work over the past few months:

  • A faraway bus stop can be a barrier, particularly if a child is chronically ill. Moving it closer to the child helps them get to school.
     
  • Some chronically ill parents have child care problems. They either don’t send their child to school or send them late when the parent has a doctor’s appointment. We help them problem-solve and find other resources for child care so the child doesn’t miss school.
     
  • Homelessness can be an issue, of course. When a student ends up in a shelter, getting to school may seem impossible, particularly if the shelter is out of their home district. In fact, the home district is required to provide transportation for that child, something many people don’t know.

These relatively simple efforts are already making a difference. Between early November and late January, more than 60% of the chronically absent children had improved attendance, and we think most will continue on this positive path. And 35% of the kindergarteners with tardiness problems are getting to school on time more often.

Building on this success, the Providence Children’s Initiative and Fogarty Elementary staff and faculty started focusing on other grades, with teachers posting lists of students with perfect attendance and giving “shout-outs” to students improving attendance. Local rapper “Mr. Deep Positivity” has presented at school assemblies, and recorded a video with classes who had the best attendance.

At times, the overall school has seen attendance rates as high as 97 percent, while the usual rate has been around 93 percent.

We continue to explore new methods to bolster attendance. For example, recently we began mapping where children with attendance and tardiness issues live to determine if there are common barriers showing up on particular streets or blocks.

We believe this is a promising start—and Fogarty Elementary deserves to be proud--but there is much more that needs to take place to reduce the city’s chronic absenteeism issue. We will continue to work with Mayor Angel Taveras’ Children and Youth Cabinet and the Providence Public School District to spread such success across the district in the months ahead. This strong partnership is committed to ensuring our students are in their classrooms—on-time—and ready to learn.


Michelle Cortés-Harkins is the director of the Providence Children’s Initiative.

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