New Britain, CT
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The Coalition for New Britain's Children has a long history of attendance work, starting even before they joined the GLR Campaign. CFLeads, an organization of community foundations, and Merrill Gay, Executive Director of the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative, started gathering and analyzing New Britain's absence data with the DATT tools from Attendance Works. By the time they'd joined the GLR Campaign, they had already gathered statistics such as average daily attendance, and were reaching out to stakeholders in the community.
Now, coalition members meet with school officials and others every 10 days to look at changing school attendance data. Over time, coalition members have shifted the focus from truancy to more nuanced lenses like chronic absence. And in fact, in the past year New Britain has seen large decreases in the percentage of children chronically absent in K through 3rd. The percentages of change in the chronic absence rates are -41% in kindergarten, -44% in 1st, -27% in 2nd, and -30% in 3rd. However, data analysis has also revealed a dropout problem, which the coalition is seeking to avert by focusing on early literacy.
70% of the children in New Britain schools have had some pre-K, through programs run by service providers. But not all of those 70% are attending regularly. In pre-K run by the school district, the chronic absence rate is 26.5%, while in HRA Head Start programs it is 55%, and in YWCA preschool it is 67%. The pervasive view of pre-K is that attendance there is not as important as attendance in kindergarten or grade school.
Some of the challenges are institutional. Pre-K providers are compensated by the state if children show up at least once a month, so pre-Ks are not incentivized to crack down on absences or keep detailed, digitized data. And because they are open for longer hours than K-12 schools, parents associate pre-K with daycares instead of with kindergarten. It is necessary to change parent perceptions and extend a 'culture of attendance' to pre-school. Finally, a lack of transportation to pre-K also decreases attendance.
To deal with the institutional policies of pre-K, the Coalition called in Hedy of Attendance Works to help automate the pre-K attendance system and assemble data teams. The concept of a data team to track older students' attendance was familiar, but pre-K data teams were an innovation. The data teams are shifting record-keeping from paper records to digital ones, a move which will help track long-term trends.
The coalition also called in help to shift to a 'culture of attendance', asking pre-K teachers to note 'missing friends' at circle time, and contact parents with absent kids. The strongest voices in creating change, however, have been the parents themselves. The coalition produced videos about the importance of attending preschool regularly, in which local parents discuss why they send their children to preschool every day.
Getting kids to school is not just a problem for pre-K; it's also an issue in neighborhood schools, to a lesser extent. At first glance, this is counter-intuitive; the recent move to a neighborhood school system helped expand transportation options. Many students can now walk to and from school. However, in cold or inclement weather, having to walk to school makes some kids less likely to go at all. In Springfield, MA, neighborhood schools have 'walking school buses', where parents or older children walk younger ones to school. New Britain's coalition proposed this solution at back-to-school open houses.
Two parents volunteered to lead walking school buses. One, new to the district and with a daughter in kindergarten, volunteered to lead the walking bus partially to introduce her daughter to other kids. Another parent, with a son in 5th grade, volunteered to lead a walking school bus because she wanted to set a good example for her son. "I want my son to be a leader." These parent volunteers also cited a desire to build community and collective responsibility. They felt it was everyone's job to help these kids succeed. Due to these successes, other neighborhood schools are now pitching the walking school bus idea at open houses.