Last year, Schenectady High School was not the place to be.
Only 40 percent of the students came to school most days. The rest stayed home, playing video games or hanging out at parks and fast food joints with their friends. Attendance deans were fully employed searching for them all day.
This year, more than 78 percent of the students have near-perfect attendance. And almost no one has given up on school altogether. Last year, 20 percent of the students skipped school routinely. This year, it is 1.5 percent.
With all those teens in school, one might imagine increased violence and trouble from students who had previously just stayed home.
But discipline referrals are down sharply, as are suspensions. Fewer students are misbehaving, and those who do are committing less-serious acts, school officials said.
The data were part of the third quarter academic results, which the district released Wednesday. Under Superintendent Laurence Spring, the district releases those results every quarter.
Attendance is also vastly improved at the middle school level.
Last year, 41 percent of the seventh- and eighth-graders in the district came to school most of the time. This year, that skyrocketed to 91 percent. And 22 percent of the students have achieved perfect attendance.
Some school leaders say the sudden increase must be due to the free breakfast and lunch offered to all students this year.
While many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, their parents must fill out a form each year detailing their income. The form is complex, requiring them to be strong readers in English, and even when they do fill it out, many older students feel embarrassed and do not turn it in, school officials said.
This year, a grant is providing everyone free breakfasts. The meals aren’t anything special — just cereal and milk. But at the elementary schools, school officials saw a huge increase in attendance from students who had previously qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
While attendance among all elementary school students increased by 50 percent, it increased by 55 percent among poor students.
School officials said parents might be more motivated to get their children to school every day because they get breakfast there.
At the middle and high schools, the free lunch might be the bigger draw. Officials said many more lunches are being eaten this year, which they attribute to students who couldn’t afford one last year, but felt too embarrassed to turn in the form to get a free meal. They said the free food is the only big change at the schools this year, and the only variable that could explain the sudden increase in attendance.
Still, everyone has also been working hard to improve attendance. Every teacher and principal now has a computer program on their main screen that tracks attendance day by day, and teachers can send automatic emails home, flag students for guidance counseling over attendance, or start school meetings on how to address a student’s chronic absence.
At Mont Pleasant Middle School, attendance did not improve at the beginning of the school year as it did elsewhere.
But when Peg Normandin took over as principal, she introduced new programs to get students to school. Among other things, they earn raffle tickets if they’re in their seats by the time the bell rings.
“Rather than saying, ‘You’re late, you’re late,' it was acknowledging, ‘Good job, you’re on time,’ ” Normandin said.
Students bought into the program and attendance increased steadily. Now more than 91 percent of the student body comes to school.
In the main office, the school displays the raffle prizes, including a bicycle and a big-screen TV. Businesses have donated gift cards and other items; Normandin is looking for more donors to keep the program running through the last month of school.
At the high school, Principal Diane Wilkinson said attendance could be affected by many small improvements made over the last two years.
“We’re making Schenectady High School a more inviting place to be,” she said, citing new efforts to give students leadership responsibilities, including a say in the aesthetics and new policies.
Last year, students helped craft a new policy on student electronic use. The end result: Students can use their phones, iPods and other devices in the hallways and the cafeteria, but not in the classrooms, unless a teacher has an academic use for them.
Student input led Wilkinson to also get rid of the “institutional white walls” in the cafeteria, and to add circular seating.
“So kids can have conversations,” she said.
Student work is also now professionally framed and displayed on the walls.
And teachers have been taking intensive courses in the summer to change their lesson plans. Lectures are out, and hands-on learning is in.
“There’s a significant effort, the last four years, in creating engaging instruction in our classrooms,” Wilkinson said.
She thinks students are now enjoying their classes more — and learning more. So they may be lured in by the food, she said, but the teachers are keeping them in their seats.