Education

Miami-Dade launches school attendance campaign

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho talks about the iAttend program as Jose de Diego Middle School 6th grader Jaylin Terzado scratches his head and listens at a press conference at the school, September 18, 2015.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho talks about the iAttend program as Jose de Diego Middle School 6th grader Jaylin Terzado scratches his head and listens at a press conference at the school, September 18, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Every day, 20,000 students miss school in Miami-Dade County. Community leaders on Friday announced a plan to get those students in class — even if it means going door-to-door.

“We’re going to have to lace up our boots, come out of our heels and put on some flat shoes,” said school board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall. “Let’s gather our children and bring them to school.”

School attendance is serious business. In Miami-Dade, chronically absent third-graders are less than half as likely to read at grade level when compared with their present peers, according to a district analysis of standardized testing data.

“This is a very easy conclusion to reach: If kids aren’t in school, they can’t learn,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The school district is hiring additional guidance counselors who will, among other things, track and target students with poor attendance. That may mean phone calls and text messages to parents, or even home visits. Miami-Dade Schools Police will also make house calls as part of a stay-in-school program called iAttend, which is also supported by the cities of Miami and Hialeah, the Urban League of Greater Miami, Miami City Ballet and other organizations, including the Miami Dolphins and Heat.

Phyllis Jordan, a spokeswoman for the national advocacy group Attendance Works, said it’s important the school district doesn’t take a punitive approach to these types of visits. Punishing parents and students has actually backfired in some places, she said. For example, when Los Angeles schools tried fining kids who were late to school, the students simply cut class rather than be cited.

“So much of what we do on attendance is focused on punishment,” she said. “We really endorse these positive approaches. You can motivate kids with competitions or contests.”

T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, said his organization will work within schools to offer incentives like supermarket gift cards to students and families who take attendance seriously. He also promised to encourage local businesses to get involved when they see children who are skipping class.

“The community has to say that the children have to be in school,” he said.

Nationally, students in early grades tend to miss the most school, and the problem peaks again in high schools. In Miami-Dade, state data shows that high schoolers are more likely to be absent.

The schools with the most students missing the most school are all high schools. At Miami Central, Miami Southridge and Homestead Senior, about 22 percent of students missed 21 days of school or more, according to figures from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. That’s almost 10 percent of the total school year.

“Think about the lack of educational potential. Think about the gap that creates,” Carvalho said.

Jordan from Attendance Works said it will be important for the school district to figure out what’s going on at each of these schools. The leading reason for absenteeism isn’t truancy, according to a recent study by Attendance Works. Rather, health issues tend keep kids home — especially asthma. Other times, the problem is neighborhood-specific. Jordan said a school district in New Jersey noticed students tended to skip school when it rained — so school leaders handed out raincoats.

“And attendance improved. I mean, it’s as simple as you can get,” Jordan said.

D’shanti Franklin is in the sixth grade at Jose de Diego Middle School in Wynwood, where Friday’s announcement was made. Jose de Diego ranks in the top 30 schools with the most students missing the most school. She said students sometimes miss class because the bus is late and kids don’t feel like waiting.

“If your mother has to go to work, you know you have to get on the bus,” said D’shanti, 11. “It’s a really hard life out here because you need a job, and education is how you go somewhere in life.”

Follow @cveiga on Twitter.

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