Rochester schools superintendent Bolgen Vargas's goal was 95 percent attendance on the first day of school. In the weeks leading up to opening day, Vargas sounded upbeat and confident that city students and parents would meet the challenge.
But the district fell short. First day attendance was about 83 percent overall. Only two schools – SOTA and School 58 – reached the 95 percent threshold. (It climbed a little on day two.)
Just as troubling is that we don’t seem to know why. District spokesperson Chip Partner says that there are a variety of reasons for first day absenteeism: late registration, transportation mix ups, and confusion over school starting times.
But those problems can be addressed, and they don’t explain why so many Rochester students miss so much school.
District officials have done a much better job of tracking attendance — identifying which students are chronically absent, and the schools with the highest absenteeism rates.
But we still don’t seem to know the root causes for the district’s high absenteeism. After more than two years of effort emphasizing the importance of higher attendance, are some students and parents still not getting the message? What else should school officials do to get students into classrooms?
Good attendance drives achievement. To prove that point, Vargas has gone as far as using the district’s own testing data to show the impact of low attendance. The more time students miss, the less hope they have of ever catching up. And it doesn't take many absences to cause problems.
“The superintendent says when high-school attendance is no more than 80 percent that leads to about a 40 percent graduation rate,” Partner says.
District officials are going to try to combat absenteeism this year with a full-court marketing campaign called “Every Minute Counts.” Publicity, an incentive program that rewards higher attendance, and even stickers for younger kids touting the importance of being in school and being engaged are all part of the campaign.
Hopefully, it won’t be money spent in vain.
It’s not surprising that so many people in the Rochester community have run out of patience with city schools. They’re seeing a billion dollars going into modernizing schools, the district operating on an annual budget that’s approaching $780 million, teachers under intense pressure to get results, millions more spent on turning around failing schools, another $55 million annually going to busing, and more money spent on meals.
But when so many students are not coming to school, the risk is that the community's concern will harden into resentment. And that’s a much worse problem.