This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is one of five cities where more than a third of its students are reported as being chronically absent. Attendance Works, a school attendance advocacy group, recently revealed this startling statistic in a report that examined absenteeism in districts across the country, including those in Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit.
In these cities, chronic absenteeism — when students miss 10 percent or more of the school year — is often the result of systemic issues such as poverty, poor health care, and under-resourced schools. According to numerous reports, there is a direct connection between attendance and academic achievement.
As part of an effort to improve attendance, the District partnered with Read by 4th to put 10 community ambassadors in six North Philadelphia elementary schools to address chronic absenteeism and lateness among students.
Principals at Alexander McClure, Isaac Sheppard, William Cramp, Lewis Elkin, Cayuga, and Bayard Taylor selected at least one trusted community member each to act as a liaison between the school and the community. They gave preference to Spanish-speaking parents of students attending the schools.
The ambassadors are expected to greet and inform parents and families of the importance of attendance, and maintain communication as the year progresses. Parents and families of students with a history of chronic absence or those showing the patterns will receive focused attention to address the challenges preventing good attendance.
“I’m not here to judge you,” said Eva Sanchez, ambassador for Alexander McClure Elementary School in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia. “I am not here to discipline you. I’m here just to figure out what’s going on so we can help each other fix it.”
Sanchez is a nine-year resident of Hunting Park and has two children – a teenager and a 2nd grader who attends McClure. She earned a reputation for watching out for other children in the community as if they were her own, she said.
“The parents just seem to trust me a little bit more because they see I have that aspect that I am going to protect children in front of me, or just look after them.”
This trust allows her to get close to parents who may be wary about sharing their struggles of getting their child to school with a traditional school employee. For example, Sanchez often reassures parents who can’t afford uniforms for their children that they will not be reprimanded or dismissed early for a dress-code violation.
“Because we are a low-income city, some parents just don’t have the money to buy the uniforms,” she said. “[So we tell the parents to] never fear us sending your child home for uniforms. Send them however you want, and if they have issues getting uniforms, we can work with you.”
Aside from deeper systemic problems, some parents are very casual when it comes to attendance, especially with young learners.
A 2013 study from the University of Chicago found that children of parents who knew the importance of attendance had an average absence of 7.5 percent, while students whose parents were less aware had an average of 13.5 percent, making them chronically absent.
The ambassadors program is a part of Read by 4th’s strategy to ensure that every child in Philadelphia is reading at grade level by 4th grade. According to researchers, if a student is not reading proficiently by that time, he or she is at risk of falling behind in academic progress. In fact, a student’s reading ability at 3rd grade is a strong indicator of whether they will graduate high school. Therefore, because most of the reading instruction takes place first thing in the morning, Read by 4th’s ambassador program places equal emphasis on lateness.
“Our overarching goals through Read by 4th’s work with attendance is to make sure that kids are present for the reading instruction that takes place,” said Abby Thaker, director of strategic partnerships for Read by 4th.
“And so from that point of view, we are pretty agnostic on whether that absence is an excused absence or unexcused absence because either way, a child is missing instruction,” she said.
Absences are an easy problem to identify, but lateness can go under the radar. Although the academic impact of absenteeism is limited to individual students, lateness causes a disruption to the entire class.
When a younger student is late, even by 10 minutes, said Sanchez, he or she must be signed in and walked to class, which is already in progress. Teachers must stop instruction of the class to accommodate the student. The problem is then exacerbated when multiple students are late.
“It’s a disruption that affects everyone,” Sanchez said.
Last year, McClure had an average daily attendance of 94 percent for the entire school, but 42 percent of the students showed up late more than 10 times throughout the year. Sanchez hopes to reduce these numbers by talking to parents to help them understand the importance of punctuality at school.
“[These are] things that can be rectified if you do a little bit of time management in the morning,” Sanchez said.
“If you need to go to that corner store, wake up five to 10 minutes earlier. Little simple things can make a big difference.”