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Project U-Turn launches attendance awareness campaign

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Isaac Riddle

At a school like Frankford High School, where one out of four students is absent on any given day, just getting students through the doors is a constant struggle.

According to recent Pennsylvania Department of Education attendance rates, in the 2011-12 school year, more than 11,500 students were absent daily from District schools.

On Wednesday, members of Project U-Turn, a city-based initiative focused on the dropout crisis, announced the launch of a new campaign that seeks to improve Philadelphia’s school attendance rate.

“The benefits of school attendance extend far beyond academic gains,” said Superintendent William Hite, in a statement. “It means students are engaged in school, developing a sense of persistence that will serve them well past their school years. It means lower crime rates and higher graduation rates, which helps to strengthen local economies.”

Project U-Turn, which is run by the Philadelphia Youth Network and a confederation of partners that includes the District and the city, will encourage school attendance through public service announcements, social media, local partnerships, and community outreach.

As the District struggles through a painful funding crisis and staffing shortage, concerns have grown that poor attendance will only rise. Crowded classrooms have multiplied, and teachers have been laid off, along with guidance counselors and other support staff who would otherwise address the reasons that students fail to attend school.

“Every young person deserves a chance at an education,” said Nicole Vega, a former high school dropout and mother of three who has since enrolled at the E3 Center at Congreso, a career and educational counseling program designed for out-of-school and vulnerable youth.

“When I got back to school, I felt comfortable again,” said Vega.

On Monday, when the leveling process ended, the District announced that 139 teachers had been reassigned to new schools. Many schools with fewer students than expected lost teachers. In fact, the District estimated that 4,000 fewer students are attending District schools than had been projected. The District says it doesn’t know where all those students have landed.

How many of those lost students can be tied to the closing of 24 schools this summer, however, is known. According to District spokesperson Deirdre Darragh, officials have data on where each of those students have gone. She said that when the schools were closed, students were given options of which school to enroll in the fall, letters were sent home to parents, and parents submitted their preferences.

Hite, who did not speak at the announcement but answered questions afterward, said he believes more students than expected transferred to city charter schools this fall.

Hite also confirmed that of the $45 million released earlier this month by Gov. Corbett, $10 million will be put aside for charter schools, which have larger than expected enrollments. With the high cost of sending students to charters, the District has been battling several charter operators in an attempt to place caps on the schools’ enrollments.

Student enrollment does not now determine the amount of funding the District receives from the state. According to Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer, the District and the city are pushing for a transparent funding formula that would use student enrollment as a key component in determining state funding.

Isaac Riddle is an intern at the Notebook.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the District did not know where students from schools that closed in June landed and that those students had been asked where they intended to enroll.

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