Parents are beginning to receive unexpected visits from school principals as part of the city’s latest effort to curb frequent student absenteeism in New Haven Public Schools.
This initiative — the brainchild of Mayor Toni Harp — attempts to bring to light the importance of kids attending classes on a regular basis. Harp’s office sent an email last week to the leaders of five different schools in Fair Haven requesting that they mobilize volunteers to knock on the doors of families with students identified as chronically absent — those who missed at least 10 percent of school days — according to Quinnipiac School principal Grace Nathman. Principals, staff members, teachers and officers did the first stages of neighborhood canvassing last Thursday, and they plan to meet today to organize for an additional round.
Nathman said that the canvassing efforts were well-received by parents.
“Even though we may have approached the door with too many people … they valued the fact that we need to get their kids to school every day,” she said.
In New Haven, 10.67 percent of K-3 students were chronically absent in 2013, while statewide absenteeism rates were 8.91 percent, according to the DataHaven Community Index.
Cutting down absenteeism and truancy are key elements of Harp’s efforts to improve graduation rates, City Hall spokesperson Laurence Grotheer said.
Research shows that there is a significant correlation between attendance levels and academic success from an early age. A study published in August by Attendance Works — a national organization that promotes better attendance policies and practices — shows that being absent three times in one month can result in a drop of a total of 24 points in the reading and math sections of the National Assessment of Education Progress standardized test.
Considering this relationship, Harp has initiated a proactive approach to ending truancy, which involves going to the student’s home to ask what city services can help the student overcome whatever obstacle prevents them from attending school. Rather than having predefined programs, the city is trying to provide individualized strategies to combat absenteeism.
“[There are] different reasons why kids aren’t attending school, and so there’s not going to be one silver bullet answer to improving attendance,” said Laoise King, vice president of education initiatives at United Way of Greater New Haven, a nonprofit organization that works on education issues in New Haven.
Kids often miss school because they are dealing with issues at home, King said, noting problems related to health and housing, which can vary according to age group and income level. Canvassing can help identify a family’s individual needs, she said.
NHPS parent Yury Maciel-Andrews said that although she is uncertain of whether canvassing will actually curb absenteeism, it is a productive starting point for some families, since it demonstrates a more human and caring side to a very complex and challenging issue. Maciel-Andrews has participated in several canvasses, which she said allowed her to form connections with many other NHPS parents.
In addition to these recent canvassing efforts, Harp began another program in January — the Attendance and Engagement Clinic — following a similar strategy. She started it as a pilot program at both the Quinnipiac and Strong Schools. Through the program, community experts schedule meetings with parents of chronically absent children in order to discuss the issues that might be preventing school attendance.
To implement the program, NHPS partnered with the State Department of Children and Families and the State’s Probate Court System.