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Community must focus on improving attendance

Mary Pasciak's blog entry on the attendance problem in the Buffalo Public Schools is right on the mark. While the debate had raged over whether to exempt scores of persistently absent students from the teacher evaluation, a larger point seemed to be missing: How do we actually improve student attendance?

First, let's put the problem into perspective. According to the most recent school report card from the State Education Department, the Buffalo School District had an annual attendance rate of 87 percent. That means we need to reach the 13 percent of students who are not attending school on a regular basis.

The causes of excessive absenteeism range from transportation issues to far more serious challenges, such as substance abuse. Other factors — including a poor school climate, family health concerns and financial issues — can all lead to excessive student absenteeism.

What we as parents and educators should be focusing on are solutions, such as how to foster school-family partnerships and a positive school climate, as well as how to make the curriculum more meaningful so students will feel engaged and want to come to school.

I'll be the first to admit, I don't have solutions to these problems, but if we put our minds to it, we can solve them. We already have attendance programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in place. Let's build on what we already have.

Plenty of examples of programs offer great promise. According to Attendance Works, a national initiative seeking to reduce chronic absenteeism, the "Check and Connect" intervention program has been reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse and is the sole program shown to have beneficial results for addressing student absenteeism. The Check and Connect website cites research on this program that demonstrates that it not only enhances attendance, but it increases enrollment and school engagement, too.

Let's remember what's really at stake here. Buffalo stands to lose millions of dollars in school funding. In reality, we stand to lose far more than money. Chronic absenteeism by sixth grade is a strong predictor of dropping out.

What kind of a future do we have as a city if our children don't get a basic education? We all have to accept responsibility for the problem – parents, teachers, School Board members, administrators, even members of the community at large. It's up to all of us to change the discussion away from how to measure absent students within the teacher evaluation system, and toward how to get kids into school.

My hope is that if we can get to the root of the problem, then the discussion over how to deal with absent students will become moot.

Florence Johnson is a Buffalo Board of Education member at large, but the opinions expressed here are her own.