Niagara Falls High School officials have been jumping through hoops for five years trying to get the annual student attendance rate above the 90 percent mark.
Teachers call students at home when they don't show up at school. On occasion, they have someone pick up students and bring them to class. They contact parents -- by phone, mail and in person -- to make them aware their child was not in school. They adjust student time schedules when possible and have set up special programs to get them to show up.
The results have been less than spectacular. Since the high school opened in 2000, the attendance rate has only climbed by about two percentage points, from 87.2 percent to 89.1 percent.
Administrators will try new incentives this year: prizes, including a car.
High school seniors, who account for 35 percent of absenteeism, have a chance to win a 2005 Ford Focus for perfect attendance.
Steve Baldo Ford last week offered the incentive. Company officials told seniors they would have a chance to win a drawing for the car next June 7.
"If you have perfect attendance for all four quarters, your name will go in a barrel, and you will have a chance. We'll pull a name out of the barrel, and that student will win a new Ford Focus (worth about $14,000)," said Steven Berry, Baldo's general manager.
Because not everyone can have perfect attendance, Berry said that Baldo Ford also will offer several secondary prizes for those who are pretty religious about making it to school each day.
"For each quarter, each 10-week period you have perfect attendance, you'll be able to put your name in a barrel and have a chance to win a $1,000 computer, an MP3 player, two $500 scholarships and five $200 scholarships," Berry told students.
Berry predicts the program will put the school over the 90 percent mark -- a threshold reached by every other high school in Niagara County. He has seen the idea work before, when he was with a dealership near Charlotte, N.C.
"We basically tripled the number of students who had perfect attendance . . .," Berry said. "Almost a third of the kids who graduated that year had perfect attendance. That was 50 kids out of 151."
Phil Mohr, the school's chief educational administrator, said the goal is 92 percent.
Several students last week said they are up to the challenge.
"It will be hard because some days you wake up and get that feeling like 'I don't want to get to school and I want to skip,' " said senior Darryl Green. "But they can count on me to come in on this one. They'll get everyone to come in."
"I'm definitely going to try," said Amanda Healey. "I did have a car. I don't anymore. I want one. So this is a good incentive."
> Lew-Port on top
Niagara Falls High School attendance is the lowest for all city public schools and all 10 public high schools in Niagara County during the last five years. The attendance rate is more than three percentage points below North Tonawanda, Lockport and Niagara-Wheatfield high schools and far below Lewiston-Porter, which led all county schools at 96.3 percent.
It's also below the statewide averages of 92.3 and 91.8 percent registered for all public schools -- kindergarten through 12th grade -- in 2000-01 and 2001-02, the most recent years figures were available from the state Education Department.
In Buffalo's 15 high schools, attendance last school year ran from a low of 75 percent at Grover Cleveland High School to a high of 95 percent at Da Vinci High, said John Crabbe, the city district's supervisor of student support services and compliance.
This is not the first unusual idea area schools have tried to boost attendance. In the past four years, Crabbe said, Buffalo school officials have used an "Exam Exclusion Rule" in which students who missed 28 days of school could be excluded from taking final exams.
"That can be a real motivator because it can prevent students from advancing or graduating with their class or force them to go to summer school," Crabbe said.
Crabbe said the rule has helped increase attendance at some schools while it has had uncertain results at others. He said he is not sure if the School Board plans to continue that policy this year.
At Niagara Falls High School, Mohr has welcomed almost any solution that will work.
He said he has been "perplexed and frustrated" that hard work and an array of strategies has only produced a 2 percentage-point gain.
In the school's defense, Mohr said, the 90 percent mark might have been achieved except for "four unfortunate days" that accounted for 3,300 absences.
Dec. 20, Mohr said, the school had more than 800 absences because of a delayed opening of school. The next day, more than 600 students stayed home because it was the last day before Christmas break.
Jan. 24, there were 600 absences because it was the Monday of a one-day school week. Finally, in April, close to 1,100 students missed school after a pizza deliveryman shot and killed student Anthony Sheard, who police say was robbing the man.
While those incidents did not help attendance, Mohr said there are two underlying factors he feels contribute to absenteeism here and that must somehow be addressed. He calls them the cultures of "indifference" and "hopelessness."
"I think the lack of real strong role models of significant adults in households that have requirements of being to a job on time, or being someplace punctual, is part of the problem," he said.
"I'm not sure many of our kids see a whole lot of that. I also think poverty is a big issue, and getting here is a struggle for some kids. When a kid looks at you like he's done you a favor getting to school at 11 a.m., maybe in some respects that is a decent accomplishment. Maybe they had to walk, and there was nobody home to wake him up."
Even more devastating is the "culture of hopelessness," Mohr said. He said he believes it is related to poverty and goes back to a community that's pretty depressed economically and depressed about what the world holds for its children. Niagara Falls' economy has been on a downward spiral that started in the late 1950s.
"I don't think these kids see the real world and the opportunities it has to offer them. Too often our kids -- really talented kids -- are shooting to go to a community college when they should be trying to get financial aid to go to a good, four-year college," Mohr said. "There's nothing wrong with community colleges, but some of these kids have the ability to really go places and do big things. But they don't dream that big. I don't think they know how.
"They don't have enough people encouraging and pushing them on to great heights. There's not enough expectation that these kids can leave the area and compete at a large university and apply for scholarships and support. Ironically, it's kids in poverty who have a good chance for financial aid."
To counteract these things, Mohr said the school has been coming up with programs to help encourage a change of attitude, even with its staff.
> Remedial steps
The school has started programs in the last couple of years to make the senior year more interesting and relevant to students.
Seniors can attend Niagara County Community College in the mornings and earn college credits, while attending high school in the afternoons. About 100 students are involved in internship programs this year. Others are given the opportunity to start their own businesses. About 60 students help run the school's television station, Channel 21.
More programs are on the way. For example, Mohr said the school hopes to open a bank branch within the high school in the near future.
Course work is also being made more compelling. This year, the school has married 12th-grade English and social studies courses so teachers work together with the same students, collaborating on projects that focus on real world issues.
Mohr said a lot more has to be done, and a separate attendance incentive is also being offered to students in grades nine to 11.
District Information Services Director Darlene R. Sprague said Synergy of Western New York Computing and Lenovo (formerly IBM) will provide a chance to win one free laptop computer to the school's underclassmen. She said each student who has perfect attendance for one, two, three or four quarters this year will receive one to four chances to win the computer in a drawing at the end of the school year.
Also, children at all three city middle schools will have a shot at winning a laptop computer from those companies, based on perfect quarterly attendance, Sprague said.
Mohr expressed hope that the new incentives will work. He said administrators want students in school because they need to learn, and graduate, to be prepared for the world and the opportunities it has to offer.