PHOTO BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO
Mayor Tom Richards, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, and United Way President Peter Carpino at a press conference this morning to address truancy in the city school district.
Many Rochesterians strongly supported mayoral control. They didn’t get it, but in an odd turn of events, they may have received something better: a strong working relationship between City Hall and the city school district. That point couldn’t have been clearer at a press conference earlier today.
Vargas, flanked by Mayor Tom Richards and United Way President Peter Carpino, discussed plans to intensify efforts to reduce truancy and increase attendance in all city schools again this year.
Though the program will be districtwide, special attention will be given to Schools 4, 8, 17, 22, 36, 43, 54, and 57 — which have known truancy problems. The district will continue its “truancy blitzes,” too — fanning out into city neighborhoods and knocking on doors to find truant students.
But this year, the district has enlisted the help of eight parent liaisons to help work with families to identify and resolve barriers to attendance. Another leg of the outreach effort includes drawing on support from African-American clergy and their congregations to push the message: go to school and stay in school.
If parents consent, the district will give the church pastors some student information, such as grade point averages and attendance records.
A major marketing and public awareness campaign is also in the works.
Parents who contact the district seeking help with their child’s attendance will receive it, Vargas said. The reasons for chronic truancy vary widely, he said, but much of it involves family hardship such as homelessness or mental health problems.
“We are willing when we hear from mom and dad that they are having a problem to support that family,” Vargas said. In some cases, the district will even send teachers to the student’s home.
Attendance increased from a roughly 87 percent school year average in 2011 to 2012 to 89 percent in 2012 to 2013 or by 2 percent, school officials said. Last September, the district was having trouble accounting for about 900 students. But by June of this year, the number had been reduced to 22 students.
Much of the reduction came about through the district's improved record-keeping and determining the whereabouts of many students who are no longer enrolled in the district.
City and school officials say they are convinced that at least some of the district’s poor performance is directly attributable to its long history of lackluster attendance. Even with an 89 percent average attendance districtwide, 11 percent or about 3,300 students on average are missing school on any given day.
With absences this high, officials said, the likelihood of student success is greatly reduced. This is especially true in the lower grades where students are supposed to be developing reading proficiency.
The district calls parents about every absence and a series of letters are mailed to parents when the absences increase from 3 days to 20 days. Vargas said he will turn to the Family Court system for help with truancy once all other options have been exhausted.
“It’s a simple ingredient,” Richards said. “What could be simpler than you have to show up if you want to do well in school? The way you show you love these children is by getting them to school every day.”
Richards declared September “School Attendance Awareness Month,” and United Way’s Carpino said his organization is committed to helping the district solve its truancy problem.
No school board members or representatives of the Rochester Teachers Association were at the conference.