The day before going to Albany last week to beg for $5.6 million jeopardized by teachers' refusal to sign an evaluation agreement that holds them in any way accountable for chronically absent students, interim School Superintendent Amber Dixon did something noteworthy:
She awarded plaques to 20 principals whose schools found ways to significantly increase the number of kids who show up. The 20 schools have cut chronic absenteeism by between 21 percent and more than 35 percent this year.
So much for the notion that educators have no impact on attendance, and it's all the parents' fault.
As the $5.6 million beckons just out of reach, and Johns Hopkins University cancels plans to help Buffalo students because of the impasse, the dramatic improvements put the lie to the Buffalo Teachers Federation's objection that their members have no effect on whether students come to class.
In fact, back in the real world, the district is making significant strides. The successful schools, which also won $1,000 in incentive money, used a variety of approaches. But those that led the list had one strategy in common: building a relationship with kids and parents.
At Native American Magnet School 19, which saw a more than 35 percent improvement, a teacher's assistant calls the homes of absent K-6 students, and a teacher uses a free period to do the same for seventh- and eighth-graders, an idea that came from staff, said Principal Linda Brancatella. She credited the improvement to relationship-building and a joint effort by parents, students and staff.
"Teachers are out there saying, 'Yeah, I missed you. I really want to see you.' It's a personal connection," Brancatella said.
It's a similar story at Roosevelt Early Childhood Center School 65, where Principal Tracie-Michele Lewis formed an attendance committee of teacher's assistants familiar with the students' families and the teachers who sign kids out at the end of the day and meet with whoever picks up the child.
That familiarity allows staffers to encourage attendance and probe for challenges -- and call in support services where needed -- in a nonthreatening manner, Lewis said.
"It's all about communication," said Lewis, whose school cut chronic absenteeism by 33 percent.
Over at Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute School 39, every kid is assigned an adult mentor who meets with a half-dozen or so students on early release days to do goal-setting or fun stuff like cooking.
This relationship-building helps "break down the barriers to make them see that we are human and we care about them," said Principal Ramona Reynolds, who also used friendly homeroom attendance competitions to cut chronic absenteeism by 33 percent.
Middle Early College High School 415 saw a 34 percent improvement.
"The whole staff becomes involved," said Principal Susan Doyle, who emails attendance reports to teachers and asks them to speak with chronically absent students to probe for problems. She shares the data with teachers because, if a student is otherwise a great kid, teachers might not even realize there's an attendance challenge.
"We all have a vested interest," Doyle said of a schoolwide approach that lets kids know that someone is watching "and that someone cares about you."
Administrators, aides, parents and kids at these and the other 16 schools have done a lot of things right to improve attendance. But no doubt, teachers also played a big part.
With $5.6 million at stake, it would be nice to hear the BTF admit it.