2 Schools Tackle Chronic Absenteeism

Melissa Bailey PhotoFifty-six families whose young children have missed over 10 days of school will get an invitation to meet Judge Jack Keyes—and try to cut a bad habit before it gets worse.

Keyes (pictured), of New Haven Probate Court, announced the upcoming invitations at a press conference Tuesday at Strong School at 130 Orchard St.

Joined by a phalanx of local and state officials, he unveiled a new pilot program aimed at combating chronic absenteeism among the city’s youngest students. Chronic absenteeism is a citywide problem: 15.5 percent of students in grades K to 3 missed at least 10 percent of school days in 2012, compared to 8.3 percent statewide, according to DataHaven’s Community Index.

The program, called the Attendance and Engagement Clinic, will launch in upcoming weeks at Strong School and Quinnipiac School, both of which serve grades K to 3. School staff have identified 46 families at Strong School, which serves 450 kids, and 10 families at Quinnipiac School, which serves 342 kids, to participate in the program. The program, a collaboration among the probate court, the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the New Haven public schools, is targeting young kids because kids who are chronically absent in younger grades are more likely to keep skipping school when they get older and more likely to drop out of school.

Families whose kids are flagged for chronic absenteeism will first get a letter inviting them to meet with their principal. Then they’ll get an invitation to meet at school with Keyes, social workers from DCF, and school staff. If they accept the invitation, they’ll begin a series of workshops and private meetings aimed to help them work through problems at home—such as transportation, addiction or access to health care—that are preventing families from sending kids to school.

The clinic will be voluntary, according to schools Superintendent Garth Harries. It will focus on how to help parents improve attendance and help kids feel engaged in school. The program will also offer students scholarships at after-school programs, paid for by a state grant administered through the probate court, Keyes said.

Keyes, New Haven’s probate judge of 28 years, has handled hundreds of cases where DCF is trying to remove kids from families due to abuse or neglect. Chronic absenteeism is usually not the only problem in a household, he said, but it’s often the first sign of trouble at home. It could be a sign that a parent is struggling with addiction or mental illness. It could be a sign that a child is sick and the guardian does not have the means or transportation to bring the kid to the doctor. When poor kids get sick, they miss more school than other kids because they often lack access to good health care, he said.

Overseeing these cases, he said, he has witnessed the “great unfolding tragedies” of 8-year-olds’ lives. Usually the cases come to him when it’s too late—after a “really bad event” has occurred, he said. The cases involve “a bunch of guardians, a bunch of schools and a bunch of heartbreak.” Missing school is never the sole reason a family loses custody of a child, Keyes said, but it’s often the best evidence of neglect at home because it’s easily documented.

Keyes said he aims to step in to help families before the cases land in his court. At his suggestion, the state probate court agreed to let New Haven replicate a similar Attendance Clinic that has been running in Waterbury for the past five years, also through the probate court system.

At the new clinic, Keyes will be aided by two DCF social workers, Tamekia Walton and Kareen Malcolm (pictured). Keyes was asked if parents might be hesitate to sign up for the clinic, given the reputation of DCF and the court for snatching people’s kids from them. Keyes replied that while DCF can take families to court for “educational neglect,” that is not the intent of the clinic, nor would that happen through the clinic.

Mayor Toni Harp said the clinic aims to help families. But “there is the added subconscious pressure” raised by the presence of a judge and DCF, she noted, which should “raise the level of concern to the families.”

“Each day a child misses school is a wasted opportunity,” Harp said. “To the extent that our community accepts” kids missing school, “it is complicit” in setting up kids for failure. “Once a child becomes accustomed to the idea” that they won’t be held accountable for skipping school, they’ll get the idea that they won’t be held accountable for other things, such as showing up to high school or to a job, Harp said.

Harp’s performance in the press conference shed more light on her emerging role as an education mayor: She helped a new superintendent, Harries, sell a proposal that public school families might be wary of—he turned to her to address fears that DCF staff and a judge would punish families through the program. And she used her state connections to help make the program happen. As a legislator, she worked with state Sen. Martin Looney and state Rep. Toni Walker to write the bill that established Waterbury’s attendance clinic program. Now the trio is amending that bill to include New Haven in the program. Harp said she is also working with the legislature to make sure the grant program for after-school scholarships is funded.

The program comes at no extra cost to the city, just extra time spent by DCF workers, probate staff and school officials, according to Keyes.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 28, 2014  3:42pm

None of these fads appears to have the least effect on student achievement.Bottom line Children from stable higher-income families have a huge advantage over children from unstable, lower-income families.

posted by: robn on January 28, 2014  5:12pm


I disagree. Absenteeism is a sign of other problems and recognizing it could lead to solutions. At the very least, parents who want help but are unaware of their options will be armed with more information. I’m glad Mayor Harp and Judge Keyes are giving this their attention.

posted by: Theodora on January 28, 2014  11:36pm

Three-Fifths… You are completely off-base as you constantly try to state ill-informed opinions as facts. Absences and low performance are undeniably related and taking aim at absenteeism can absolutely change outcomes.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on January 29, 2014  1:01am


I would like to know which part of ThreeFifth’s comment here do you think is “off base” or “ill-informed opinion”.

Thank You in Advance for your response.

posted by: JohnTulin on January 29, 2014  9:26am

Mayor Harp, this is not the community’s fault - IT IS THE FAULT OF THE PARENTS (OR LACK THERE OF).  Do not blame society for the failings of individuals.  This lets THEM off the hook completely (as usual).

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 29, 2014  10:18am

posted by: Theodora on January 28, 2014 10:36pm
Three-Fifths… You are completely off-base as you constantly try to state ill-informed opinions as facts. Absences and low performance are undeniably related and taking aim at absenteeism can absolutely change outcomes.

Research showed that chronically absent kids from lower-income families who miss 10 percent of the year in kindergarten perform poorly in 1st grade. For low-income children, who have trouble making up the lost time, the poor performance persists through 5th grade. By middle and high school, when chronic absence rates are sometimes two to three times higher than in the elementary grades, absences become a key predictor that a student will drop out of high school.And buy the way we have a system in place already.They are called truancy school officers.Are not these school truancy school officers being paid to go to the homes of kids with high Absences? Research is what I base my opinions on.

posted by: robn on January 29, 2014  10:52am


Try to make sense once and a while. Your first post states that income is relevant and truancy is not. Your second post states the opposite; that truancy IS relevant. You then achieve the penultimate logical short circuit stating that truancy officers fail to intervene in truancy, so no one else should try.

posted by: Teacher in New Haven on January 29, 2014  11:44am


While I think Theodora goes too far (Perhaps far enough to be described as a personal attack) I admit that I have trouble seeing how a new effort to get kids to come to school represents “one of these fads.” I would argue that our schools need to do whatever they can to get kids into school.  Truancy officers are paid to get kids into school.  In my experience they do an admirable job, but they are not enough to handle this problem on their own. 

It seems to me that the research you cite does more to demonstrate the need for this “Fad,” than it does to support your “bottom line.”

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on January 29, 2014  1:11pm

There seems to be an inability on the part of those disagreeing with Three Fifths’ position to see his ULTIMATE (not Penultimate) point.

While all of the efforts to get and keep students in school are helpful, they are so only to the degree that the nation addresses the underlying problem of income disparity that contributes to unstable homes and communities from which these CHILDREN come in the first place. 

Even “good” programs and “great” ideas are ultimately hampered by the bad and horrible conditions under which these children live.  Tinkering around the top of the problem is NOT going to solve it! And doing so lends itself to credible critiques of being “fadish”. Responsible addressing the “bottom line” of income disparity and under and uneducated households is the ethical AND pragmatic solution for a nation that WANTS to do better by its children and for its future. 

That’s what Three Fifths is advocating for, and if I’ve read him wrong, it’s certainly what I’M advocating for. 

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee
Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church
New Haven, CT

posted by: robn on January 29, 2014  2:33pm


“Penultimate” is used correctly. A logical short circuit goes in circles and can never reach a conclusion. Ergo its a step away from a conclusion.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on January 29, 2014  2:52pm

Finally Harp is involved in something that doesn’t cost the taxpayers a cent. Hope it stays that way, but Judge Keyes is respected and trusted, so I am comfortable with this. And I think it will be somewhat successful which is good for the children involved in the program. Judge Keyes heart is always in the right place. Thank you Judge Keyes for your devotion to this city and it’s residents. By helping these children and families you will be helping all of the residents in New Haven!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 29, 2014  3:42pm

To all the above.This fad is not New and has not worked.It has been done in other states.New york used the NYPD .What NYPD did is after 9:00 am they would ride around and stop students and ask them why are you not in school. Then they would take them to processing centers and hold them until a parent came to get them.They ran into problems like Parents not coming to pick up there children. NYPD also pick up students who had valid reasons for being out of class.There also found out that hard-core truancy on a long standing societal problems Families that are struggling with poverty or substance abuse are unable to keep their kids in school.Which is my point.

My bad How come no one talks about using the Comer School Development Program?


posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on January 29, 2014  4:27pm


You missed my point, which had NOTHING to do with whether a word was used correctly or not.

My point is that people are focusing on 3/5’s penultimate point, and missing his ultimate point.

I KNOW the word was used correctly.  What was used incorrectly is where the focus was placed in the responses to him.

posted by: William Kurtz on January 30, 2014  8:13am

“Try to make sense once and a while.”

I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about what 3/5 is saying: children from lower-income, less stable households tend to be absent more often and not perform as well as children from higher-income, more stable households.

posted by: robn on January 30, 2014  9:38am


3/5’s premise is that we shouldn’t monitor truancy as an indicator to identify troubled children for outreach because income is the sole driver of success; he notes that looking for signs of problems (via truancy) is just a “fad”.

I disagree.

posted by: William Kurtz on January 30, 2014  10:08am

I acknowledge the possibility that I am misreading him but I believe his point is that this newest initiative to reduce absenteeism, and thereby boost student achievement, is likely to be ineffective because, like Reverend Ross-Lee said, ” all of the efforts to get and keep students in school are helpful . . .only to the degree that the nation addresses the underlying problem of income disparity that contributes to unstable homes and communities from which these CHILDREN come in the first place.”

Put another way, absenteeism is a problem, but it doesn’t follow that merely being in school is any predictor of academic success. You can use truant officers to drag kids to school but unless you address the underlying problems that make them unsuccessful when they’re there, you won’t fix anything.

posted by: robn on January 30, 2014  11:30am


Then both you and 3/5 are missing the crux of the article. Judge Keyes and Mayor Harp are not proclaiming good attendance a cure; they’re recognizing poor attendance as a sign of other dysfunction and using it to engage families to solve these dysfunctions. (fifth paragraph) This is a perfect example of positive proactive government involvement.

posted by: William Kurtz on January 30, 2014  12:59pm

I didn’t miss the point of anything.

I summarized my understanding of what 3/5 said which, in my opinion, had been distorted by hostile commentators. I disagree with him often—okay, usually—but don’t think his skepticism here is entirely unwarranted.

But I also applaud the intention of this new program. It’s promising, if it’s committed to and followed through on.

posted by: Mary Brown on February 3, 2014  11:43am

While we can’t solve all of societies ills, working with truancy can have a positive impact on students’ achievement and self-esteem as learners. A student who is chronically absent will absolutely fall behind academically which will impact the students confidence as a learner. I am sure we can agree that students should be in school and not at home; especially if it is because of income disparities. In schools there is warmth, breakfast, lunch, caring adults and a structured environment that provides students with meaningful learning opportunities with age-appropriate peers. Mayor Harp should expand the truancy staff, who I know do an awesome job with limited resources. Many of the truancy officers are assigned to 3-5 schools. If we are serious about tackling this issue, and it is an important issue, hire more truancy officers and social development employees. Someone said what about Comer? We need to address the social development of students if we expect them to be successful in life.