City tackles academic truancy

Mayor Toni Harp hopes to tackle truancy in New Haven elementary schools through a new program that focuses on the role parental involvement in helping children get to school.
Mayor Toni Harp hopes to tackle truancy in New Haven elementary schools through a new program that focuses on the role parental involvement in helping children get to school. Photo by Pooja Salhotra .

At a Tuesday morning press conference held at Strong School, Mayor Toni Harp unveiled a program that will address truancy among elementary school students in New Haven.

The initiative is the result of collaboration among New Haven public schools, the New Haven Regional Children’s Probate Court and the Department of Children and Families (DCF). The program aims to curb chronic absenteeism by engaging parents and providing them with the support and resources they need to improve their child’s attendance. Harp said that by addressing chronic absenteeism — which she said is the root cause of underperformance in school — the program will help students reach their full potential.

“I am very excited about this new outreach,” Harp said. “Each day a child misses school is a wasted opportunity to learn, to discover more about his or her talents and potential.”

Chronic absenteeism is a significant problem in the Elm City. According to the DataHaven Community Index, 15.5 percent of New Haven students in grades K-3 missed at least 10 percent of school days in 2012, which was nearly double the statewide absenteeism rate of 8.3 percent and about four times higher than the rate for some of the city’s suburbs.

Research has repeatedly linked chronic absenteeism with high dropout rates and a wide achievement gap, said Chief of Wraparound Services for New Haven Public Schools Susan Weisselberg, who has helped launch the new program. Addressing absenteeism during a child’s early school years can have positive results down the line, Weisselberg explained. Harp also emphasized the importance of getting students on the right track during elementary school.

“Once a child becomes accustomed to the idea that he or she will not be held accountable, that child loses accountability,” she said.

The new program, called the Attendance and Engagement Clinic, will be piloted at both the Sound School and Quinnipiac School, focusing on children in grades K-4. The program first requires rigorous tracking of student attendance at the two schools and then sending letters home to parents of children who miss a significant amount of school. These letters will include an invitation to the clinic — through which parents regularly meet with Probate Judge Jack Keyes, school administrators and DCF social workers. These experts will offer support and direct parents to resources that will help them get their child to school. Through a state grant administered through the probate court, the program will also offer students scholarships for after-school programs.

School officials said they have already begun tracking absenteeism and have identified 46 families at Strong School and 10 families from Qunnipiac School as potential program participants because they have missed at least ten days of school.

The New Haven program replicates one that Judge Thomas Brunnock established in Waterbury. The original program, Brunnock said, developed methods of supporting families to increase attendance in school.

“We have to address our efforts to the families,” he said. “We have to reach out to these families and make them aware that we are here to help get our children back to school.”

Both Harp and Keyes emphasized that the aim of the program is to help, not hurt, families. While the DCF does have the power to bring families to court on account of neglect, Keyes said that would not happen through the clinic. Instead, he said, the program is meant to engage with parents and provide support.

The original program in Waterbury has operated since 2008.

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