Seven Wichita elementary schools get grant to help address absenteeism

Harry Street Elementary third-graders Joslyn Campbell, Jesus Garcia, center, and Isaac Durban work on a book project. United Way of the Plains has issued a grant to Communities in Schools of Wichita/Sedgwick County as part of its Westside Promise Neighborhoods initiative. (May 19, 2015)
Harry Street Elementary third-graders Joslyn Campbell, Jesus Garcia, center, and Isaac Durban work on a book project. United Way of the Plains has issued a grant to Communities in Schools of Wichita/Sedgwick County as part of its Westside Promise Neighborhoods initiative. (May 19, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

It’s a simple directive, but one that teachers and administrators at Harry Street Elementary School hammer home at every opportunity: Attendance matters.

Get your kids to school. Make sure they stay through the final bell. On time, all day, every day.

“It’s a battle,” said Julie Bettis, principal at Harry Street, a school of about 430 students just south of downtown Wichita.

“Lots of families just don’t understand the importance. If a student is 30 minutes late, that’s 30 minutes of reading instruction they won’t get. … The impact of that, especially over time, can be huge,” she said.

Starting next school year, Harry Street and six other Wichita elementary schools will get a $377,135 boost to attack a problem that seems simple but often isn’t.

A grant from the United Way to Communities in Schools of Wichita/Sedgwick County will establish a network of coordinators, mentors and volunteers aimed at decreasing chronic absenteeism in the primary grades. It’s part of the organization’s recent pledge to help one of Wichita’s most distressed areas – the neighborhoods around Wichita West High School.

“We really want to start getting to the root cause and solving an issue before it becomes a problem,” said Pat Hanrahan, director of the United Way of the Plains.

“If we can keep kids in school, they don’t drop out, they get an education, they get a better job, they don’t go on welfare, they’re going to lead a happier, more productive life,” he said.

“The teachers do a great job of teaching, but they can’t teach an empty chair. … It just makes a lot of sense.”

Schools define chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of school time. That’s about four days per nine-week grading period, or about 16 days a year.

Unlike truancy, which relates to unexcused absences, chronic absenteeism includes all absences, excused or unexcused. It also includes students who regularly miss large chunks of the school day, either because they arrived late or checked out early.

Last school year, 16.8 percent of Wichita students were considered chronically absent, according to district records. That percentage goes up as students advance through the system: 10.6 percent of elementary school students, 16.4 percent of middle-school students and 29.4 percent of high school students.

For West High and its feeder schools, the picture is even more bleak. At Harry Street Elementary last year, for instance, about 18.5 percent of fourth-graders were chronically absent. At West High last year, nearly half of 12th-graders were chronically absent.

Missing school

At Harry Street, reasons for absences differ, Bettis said. Sometimes kids are sick, but because their families are poor and can’t afford to see a doctor, they stay sick longer.

Older kids stay home to care for sick siblings so parents can work. And some chronic illnesses, such as asthma, affect a disproportionately higher percentage of low-income, urban and minority children.

Transportation is another issue. Children who live within 2.5 miles of school don’t qualify for bus rides, and sometimes they won’t trek to school in pouring rain or bitter cold, Bettis said. Sometimes their parents keep them home because they don’t want them walking alone.

“What often happens in the really, really bad weather, the days it’s just brutally cold, my staff will just pick them up on the way,” the principal said.

One morning on the way to work last winter, “I thought somebody was going to call the police on me because I’m stopping the car and going, ‘Get in!’ ”

By far the biggest challenge, Bettis said, is a general sense that attendance isn’t important, a belief among families – regardless of race, location or socioeconomic status – that missing a day won’t hurt a student too much, particularly in the early grades.

“Kindergarten is our most problematic group,” she said. “For some, it’s their first exposure to groups and to germs, so they really do get sick more often. But also, we’re learning what ‘sick enough’ is. They’re little and they seem like our babies, so we keep them home if they have the sniffles.

“But sometimes we need to teach them to power through, which is something we all do,” she said. “We’re teaching them skills for the workforce and for life.”

Across the district, it’s not unusual for parents to check students out of school early on Fridays so they can leave on trips or just start their weekend early. Bettis recalled a parent retrieving her elementary school student early so they could make it to a 4 p.m. movie.

Penny Tucker, the front office secretary at Harry Street Elementary, spends the first part of every school day signing tardy slips – about 12 or 15 a day, often more – and the last half-hour using the intercom to call students out of class because their parents want to sign them out early.

Sometimes Tucker will refer to the master schedule and tell a parent, “Oh, he’s in the middle of a math lesson right now. Are you sure you need him early?” – a subliminal but pointed message that every minute counts.

On Tuesday, two siblings walked into the Harry Street office after 10 a.m. – more than an hour into the schoolday. The older sister told Bettis their mother had gone somewhere and left them with a cousin, who wasn’t able to get them to school on time.

“Family drama,” Bettis explained after they went to class. It’s not an official category on absence records, but it’s a common one.

“The hardest thing to overcome is the cultural issue. That’s where I feel that the community can be involved,” said Bettis. “I’m envisioning PSAs and those kinds of things, where everyone in Wichita is aware that it’s important for your kids to be on time every day.”

Breaking a habit

The United Way grant will be focused on reducing chronic absenteeism among preschoolers through third-graders at seven Wichita schools: Dodge, Franklin, Gardiner, Harry Street, Lawrence, Payne and Stanley.

Communities in Schools plans to employ Check & Connect, a nationally recognized intervention program in which school-based mentors work with students and their families to identify reasons for chronic absenteeism and work to overcome them.

The program will focus on primary grades, “because what starts out in kindergarten just continues as you go on,” said Hanrahan, the United Way president.

Statistics show that students who miss more school than their peers consistently score lower on standardized tests. Students who are chronically absent are twice as likely to be held back a grade and twice as likely to be suspended by the end of seventh grade.

“It just keeps snowballing,” Hanrahan said. “Once you get into a habit, it’s hard to break it.

“So what’s easier: to work with a kindergartner or first-grader about why it’s important to stay in school, or to go to a sophomore in high school and say, ‘You should be coming to school more often.’ The pattern has been set.”

It’s not just the students missing class who suffer, Bettis said. She remembers observing a classroom recently when the teacher started a math lesson at 9:05 a.m., right after morning announcements. Over the next half-hour, eight students walked in late.

“The class was there and engaged, but every time that door opened, every head turned to look at the door,” she said. “They all stopped. They were all distracted and had to get back on task.

“So not only were the late students impacted, the rest of the students were as well.”

Hanrahan said he feels confident that additional funding to battle absenteeism will have a personal and lasting impact on families in the West High neighborhoods, possibly for generations.

“A lot of times, I think, the most complex problems have turned out to have a simple solution,” he said. “We’re trying to break some behaviors and break a cycle and turn it into positive energy for the future.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.