Last year, Hartford Public Schools revealed that 25% of the district’s approximately 22,000 students were chronically absent in 2012. In pre-K and kindergarten, the chronic absence rate was 30%.
Those alarming facts motivated Hartford Public Schools, its community partners and Hartford’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to take increased action and provide the messages, information and outreach that families need to get their children to school every day and have them reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. The result was a coordinated public campaign to raise awareness and further address the issue of chronic absenteeism in the Hartford school system.
Chronic Absenteeism affects school districts statewide. On Sept. 9, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared September as Attendance Awareness Month in Connecticut. Susan B. Dunn, president and CEO of United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, received the governor’s proclamation on behalf of Hartford’s Campaign for Grade- Level Reading. But Hartford’s community organizations, including the United Way, and Hartford Public Schools, as part of the Hartford Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, realized it would take much more than a state proclamation to make a real difference in school attendance.
United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut has been working for many years with the Hartford Public Schools community toward achieving the goals of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. It has strong relationships with three of Hartford’s Community Schools, the Burns Latino Studies Academy, the Asian Studies Academy, and Alfred E. Burr Elementary School. United Way engaged area employers in integrating early literacy and family engagement events with its Year of Caring opportunities—they helped to plan and man family literacy fairs at the schools. To help deliver the message that third grade reading matters and to encourage family involvement, parents of children at these three schools also played active roles in planning the family literacy festivals with school personnel, their Community School lead organizations, the United Way and its corporate partner, United Technologies Corporation (UTC). Employees from UTC volunteered at all three festivals, engaging children and families in fun educational activities and book distribution.
There is plenty of work to be done but Burns Latino Studies Academy stands out as a model of best practices for combating Chronic Absenteeism. As part of the Attendance Awareness Month’s kick-off, Hartford Public Schools Superintendent, Christina M. Kishimoto and United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut’s president and CEO, Susan B. Dunn were joined by Connecticut’s U.S. Senator Chris Murphy on a visit to Burns School to meet students, parents, teachers, administrators and community providers who are involved in the school's strategies for combating chronic absenteeism. The Senator visited three classrooms ̶ kindergarten, 4th grade, and 6th grade- and talked about the importance of good attendance habits. He also met with parents and students to hear about obstacles they face in this area, as well as what the school is doing to address them.
Four student leaders described successful effects of new leadership and its impact on attendance, as well as obstacles to good attendance that some students face. A Burns seventh-grader, said family problems and fear of getting into a fight at school are reasons why classmates have been absent, at least in the past.
A Burns eighth grader added that in some cases, they might just not be motivated to attend- which would be a pity, because "without them, our school would be nothing."
Burns Principal, Monica Brase noted that the school has an attendance team that includes community partners. The team celebrates individual students and classrooms that have good attendance using friendly competition. Attendance percentages are posted at each classroom's door every morning, and daily totals are posted outside the office, with rewards for winners. Also, each day a class has perfect attendance, they will add a letter to the phrase "Perfect Attendance." When the phrase is completed, the class wins a “Party in a Box” with Dr. Brase. The attendance team also does outreach to the families of children exhibiting Chronic Absenteeism to help those families get their students to school every day.
Hartford's work to improve attendance will continue with a pilot program of mandatory attendance teams, bilingual messages to families, with outreach and help, with letters to faith-based leaders, radio spots, and at least one upcoming community forum. As Superintendent Dr. Christina M. Kishimoto said in a public service announcement, "Let's work together to get all kids to school, on time, every day."
Hartford’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading includes the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, Hartford Public Schools, Achieve Hartford!, the City of Hartford, Connecticut Humanities, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Hartford Public Library, YMCA of Greater Hartford, and several other community-based organizations.