The slightly built eighth-grader had seven unexplained absences already in just the first 20 days of school.
This was a case for “Inspector Gadget” and her team of attendance-trackers.
One recent morning the student was fetched out of his science class and ushered into a second-floor conference room. He appeared a little nervous as he turned to face a phalanx of seven school staffers: the dropout prevention specialist, the nurse, the social worker, the special ed teacher, the school clerk, the school culture and discipline leader, and the principal.
Why all the absences? asked the specialist.
“My dad was in the hospital. I had to stay to help her [my mom],” was the young man’s answer
The scene —part of a no-nonsense effort to understand the family situation and then help — took place at the semester’s second “attendance clinic” at Hill Central Music Academy on Dewitt Street.
A version of that same scene is unfolding in throughout New Haven’s public schools as part of the “Attendance Matters Campaign” launched by the district’s Office of Youth, Family, and Community Engagement to combat chronic absenteeism.
Over the last year the campaign — along with the 16 dropout prevention specialists who come along with it district-wide, like Hill Central’s Jene Flores, who calls herself “Inspector Gadget” — have made a huge difference at Hill Central, said Principal Lillian Fontan. It’s one of several ways Hill Central has “turned around” from being on a troubled list to succeeding.
After a state report released in March showed New Haven schools in general still struggling with chronic absenteeism, Hill Central was able to shed its state “turnaround” school status.
Among its improvements, the chronic absenteeism percentage—defined as nine unexplained absences a school year—had fallen to 15 percent at the end of the 2015/2016 school year.
In the 2014/2015 school year, that number represented almost 25 percent of the school’s approximately 500 students. Back in 2010 the chronic absenteeism rate was 36 percent, reported Fontan, a 39-year teaching veteran who has ten years experience as assistant principal and principal at Hill Central.
“We’ve always had an attendance committee,” said Fontan. She in fact headed it for a time when she was the English as a second language instructor before she became an administrator.
What has made the huge difference is having a dedicated truancy officer — Flores says “dropout prevention specialist” is now the ess intimidating term. The “specialist” is bilingual in a school with 73 percent Latino population, of which 38 percent have limited English proficiency, said Fontan.
Fontan said the other great advance has been the establishment of a school-based health clinic. That’s because the single biggest cause for absenteeism is health and trauma concerns affecting a kid and his or her family. Many of the asthmatic kids can now get their prescriptions sent directly to the clinic, she said by way of one example. And parents can send their kids to school more confident that sniffles are not an excuse for keeping a child away, Fontan added.
Inside The Clinic
The attendance clinic flags kids beginning to show patterns of absenteeism, the way the city’s Youth Stat program flags kids at risk of becoming involved with the police. It is the heart and soul of the absenteeism effort. And Flores, the dropout prevention specialist, is the heart of the clinic.
After the eighth grader made his explanation at the clinic’s recent meeting, Flores replied, “This is really important that you’ve missed a lot. What do you have to do?”
“I got to get the work done.”
Flores explained that an absence can be excused if each time there’s a note from a parent or a doctor. That helps the school staff address what might be the underlying problem behind the absence.
In another student’s case, Flores recognized the address as the Church Street South complex, where families are being moved out of dangerous living conditions. If that family is displaced, the student might be elsewhere or homeless.
If the family is homeless, “I’ll McKinney-Vento him,” said the school clerk, Connie Watson, a member of the clinic.
She was referring to the federal law that says if child is designated as homeless, the school is still obliged to provide space and educational services, along with health care at the school clinic, and even uniform and school supplies, added the special ed teacher, Brenda Chapman
“I’ll investigate,” said Flores.
Flores turned to the eighth grader. She handed the young man her card, which contains her cell phone, as well as the list of his absences.
“I’m going to call your mom,” she said.
“How is mom?” asked the school social worker, Phillipa Blake.
“Next year is high school,” said Christopher Fry, the teacher/principal in charge of school discipline and culture.
After the boy left, the committee discussed the situation. They did some quick database checking and found out that their student has two siblings, but both of high school age. So when he said he needed to stay home all those days, it was not apparently to take care of younger siblings.
“I’ll investigate,” said Flores. By that she meant phone calls, home visits, meeting parents at night at their places of employment, corralling them in the parking lot when they come to pick up their kids.
Down To 5
At the recent meeting, only eight kids were on the target list out of the school’s entire pre-K to eighth grade student body. Of those the group discussed first the “no shows,” of which there were two — kids registered who had not shown their faces yet. Flores and the others put together their info and determined two of the three had left town, one moving to New York.
Flores reported that she had made two visits to track the third child. “The house looked like no one was there. I called the building manager. They gave me the name of someone else on the lease. They said to me they left for New York.”
The school clerk, Connie Walton, wrote down, “administrative withdrawal,” for now.
“I investigated. I’m Inspector Gadget. I’ll find him,” said Flores.
“That’s awesome,” said Fontan. The rest of the clinic members agreed that having now only five kids from the whole student body on the September list is a great start.
Then they went down the balance of list, which included the eighth grader called in, to focus on what the group called their “high flyers,’ those with a pattern of absenteeism from last year.
Only the seventh and eighth graders are called in and spoken to directly, as young-adults-in-the-making, said Fry.
In Hill Central’s turnaround model, shared leadership is one of the fundamentals. Fry is the teacher in charge of the school’s culture. So he chairs the attendance clinic. It was his job to usher the eighth grader in for the public conversation about his situation.
Fry said it was fair to characterize the attendance clinic’s reputation around the school — as well as his own — as “respected, if not feared.”
Attendance clinics are not a panacea, but they do appear to be a necessity. “It’s horrible when the kids can’t access their education ... if they’re not here,” Fontan added.
With Flores in the lead, the other attendance clinic members had their assignments to look into the other four kids and reasons for their absence. Fry called the next meeting for Oct. 13.