Wake-up calls to parents? Getting kids to class is challenge for APS

On Fridays, a crush of caped and masked mini-superheroes run through Miles Elementary School.

The halls echo with exuberant squeals and squeaking sneakers. Kids high-five each other. Teachers shout encouragement.

The weekly run is a reward for classrooms whose students have five days of perfect attendance.

Across Atlanta Public Schools, leaders are trying to get more students to come to school. The district has some of the highest rates of absenteeism in the state.

Nearly a third of Atlanta’s high school students missed more than 10% of enrolled days due to excused and unexcused absences. Attendance rates are better at elementary and middle schools, but still lag behind statewide averages.

APS leaders have described the issue as “an ongoing battle.” This year, they launched a district-wide initiative aimed at boosting attendance. Individual schools are using incentives, daily wake-up calls and data to try to solve the problem.

When Miles principal Thalise Perry and assistant principal Robert Stewart walk into a first grade classroom to tell the students they’ve won the coveted prize, the kids erupt.

“You have been present and on time all week long. I am so proud of you, so you are going to meet us up front so we can run down the hallways,” says Perry.

The rambunctious run — a school-sanctioned chance to don costumes and dash down the hallway — takes about 10 minutes before dismissal at the end of each week. But school leaders said the simple reward is a key strategy in their effort to improve daily attendance.

Making sure students show up to class is critical to how they do in school. Research says students who are absent too often can struggle to master reading by the end of third grade, an important marker of future academic success. In later grades, chronic absence can be a warning bell that signals a student may drop out of high school, according to Attendance Works, a national initiative that promotes attendance.

Low-income students are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent, according to the organization. At APS, more than 77% of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

There are numerous reasons some students don’t come to school: transportation, health and disciplinary problems; homelessness; and, in some cases, a lack of interest in school.

As students get older, the challenges grow, said Shannon Hervey, director of student support and interventions.

Leaders at Carver STEAM Academy, which struggles with some of the lowest attendance rates among Atlanta high schools, have been visiting students’ homes to connect with families.

“You have to let them know us; … these are the benefits of coming to school today,” said principal Yusuf Muhammad. “It doesn’t seem like in the normal world that you would have to have that conversation, but when you are dealing with the high rates of poverty and inequity you really have to be hands-on in a school like mine.”

A sense of hopelessness can keep kids out of school, so Muhammad said he’s trying to create an inviting, welcoming school culture. That means offering mentorship programs, internships and social services and “creating experiences to bond with the kids.”

A social worker leads Carver’s attendance task force, staffers who meet regularly to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. They check attendance data daily to see which students are missing.

Georgia’s compulsory attendance law requires children to attend public, private or home school between their sixth and 16th birthdays. APS sends letters to parents after three unexcused absences and again after five. If a student continues to rack up unexcused absences, the situation may be referred to a social worker, and ultimately, the court system.

It’s not just individual schools that are focused on attendance. The district is making it a priority too.

APS formed a task force this year to tackle key areas linked to attendance. The group is looking at how to strengthen family engagement, solve transportation issues, and use discipline methods besides suspensions, so students remain in school.

The district is focusing on about nine schools to determine their specific needs.

“We don’t want to craft a cookie-cutter approach,” said Hervey.

When Yolanda Weems became principal of Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy in 2018 she knew she had to improve attendance.

“It was really causing issues,” she said.

She took a novel approach. At 6:30 a.m. every day, parents of students at the southwest Atlanta elementary school receive a robo wake-up call. The automated message reminds hundreds of parents that it’s time to “rise and shine” and school starts at 8 a.m.

While a few parents asked to be taken off the call list, Weems said the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They really, really started to depend on it,” she said of the daily call that now includes reminders about school uniforms or events. “That’s a tradition that’s not going anywhere.”

She credits the morning calls as one reason the school’s attendance rate jumped from 69.4% in 2018 to 83% in 2019, according to state data.

Tuskegee’s attendance team also calls parents whose children are absent to find out why. If a child missed the bus, the school can arrange transportation. If a child feels ill, they encourage the parent to bring the student in to see the school nurse.

“We took a really aggressive approach, and that’s why we saw such a change,” Weems said. “It truly became a priority for us, and everyone knew it.”

At Miles Elementary, the superhero run has motivated kids to show up for school and encourage their classmates to come too.

“If someone is absent in their class, and they missed the attendance run the students get on to the students for being absent,” said Perry, the principal. “It really puts a focus on the students having a collaborative effort in getting kids at school every single day.”

First grader Zaiden Clark celebrated his classroom’s perfect attendance recently after a sweaty scamper through the school hallways. In addition to winning the weekly run, he said there’s a simple reason he wants his classmates to come to school: “Because I would like to see them.”

This article was written by Vanessa McCray, with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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