Here is a heartbreaking exchange: Buffalo attendance teacher Ana Rivera is speaking to a chronically truant 15-year-old. She explains that the consequences for his father could be unpleasant, but he says he doesn’t care much about his father. She asks why.
“Because I’m a careless person,” he says.
Perhaps it is nothing more than the adolescent posturing of an adolescent boy, but without some effective intervention, the adolescent will, soon enough, become an uneducated adult, at risk of living a diminished life and of establishing a self-destructive pattern for his own unfortunate children.
It’s just one anecdote from an in-depth article in last Sunday’s Buffalo News about truancy in the Buffalo School District, but it speaks directly to the problems of dealing with adolescents in a poor city where there is virtually no penalty for skipping school. The good news is that there are solutions, as today’s follow-up story about efforts to combat student absenteeism in Los Angeles clearly documents.
The importance of attendance should be self-evident: To a great extent, it predicts graduation. Students who are chronically absent are at high risk of failure and of the lifelong consequences that may portend. In Buffalo, absenteeism is of crisis proportions:
• Nearly half of the students in Buffalo Public Schools missed more than 18 days of classes last year. That’s nearly a month of school.
• One of every six students missed more than 20 percent of the school year.
• In the district’s high schools, the problem was even worse, with one-third of students missing at least 20 percent of the school year. That’s thousands of students at immediate risk of not graduating and of perpetuating a culture of failure.
Clearly, this is a kind of ground zero in the fight to improve Buffalo’s abysmal graduation rate of around 50 percent. If chronic absenteeism were eliminated, newly engaged students would be more likely to make the grade and graduation rates would soar.
Clearly, that’s a large “if,” but the statistics also make clear that improving attendance rates are going to be an integral part of improving graduation rates. Buffalo is paying more attention to the problem of truancy than it was a few years ago, but without notable results. It could do worse than to look to Los Angeles, where significant improvements are underway.
The important thing to understand about the results in Los Angeles is that they are the product of basic hard work. Education officials have found no new magic formula, but are working collaboratively and diligently on implementing some of the oldest strategies in the book of behavior modification: carrots and sticks employed in the pursuit of clear and well-publicized goals.
So, while Buffalo plainly wants to improve its attendance rate, it has set no specific goals. In Los Angeles, the goal a few years ago was to improve the “proficient attendance” rate to 76 percent from 60 percent. It hammered that goal into the public and student consciousness and, in the end, reached 71 percent – short of the goal, but a vast improvement that wouldn’t otherwise have been achieved.
And while Buffalo imposes virtually no consequences for chronically truant students, Los Angeles has clearly established penalties, including detention, community service and even fines. Los Angeles also provides rewards and incentives, ranging from candy giveaways to Disneyland tickets.
Los Angeles also devotes more resources to the challenge, placing more attendance counselors in schools, for example. It knows when students are late to school and even when they are late to any particular class. It seeks to help them find solutions and goes so far as to invite parents to escort their children from class to class.
The state operates differently, too. In California, districts have a financial incentive to maximize attendance because state money is based, in part, on daily attendance. No such incentive exists in New York – though that doesn’t have to stop school officials from acting as though it did.
The point is that this is no unsolvable riddle. It takes planning, focus and devotion and, with that, students might find that there is an alternative to the hopelessness of a 15-year-old who dismisses himself as careless. That’s tragic and it demands a coordinated and thoughtful response by adults who do care and who, in a variety of ways, are prepared to prove it.