SCHENECTADY — Gianna Aldi, 11, wakes up every morning with a singular mission: Get to school. So far this year, she hasn’t missed a day.
“I’ve always tried to get perfect attendance,” said the Van Corlaer Elementary School fifth-grader. “I’ve tried every year for perfect attendance, but I’ve gotten sick.”
Confident she had skated through a tough flu season with her attendance record unscathed, Gianna said she felt this was her year. And she hoped ending the year with perfect attendance would be a model for students to set similarly ambitious goals.
“Breathe attendance, breathe oxygen and attendance,” she said. “I like being a role model to other people. I like to inspire other people, because I know I’m a good child.”
Each month, Van Corlaer teachers and staff recognize students with perfect attendance for the month. Principal Mariann Bellai walks from class to class with certificates for the students with perfect attendance and snaps a picture with the usually-smiling students. The pictures hang on walls throughout the school.
Lynn Curtis, a paraprofessional tasked with overseeing student attendance, posts daily attendance on the school’s electronic marquee outside. It is a public statement of how well, or poorly, the school community is doing at getting kids to class.
“Every minute in school counts!” read a message on the marquee earlier this month. “Today’s daily attendance is 95%.”
The daily rates fluctuate: Mondays and Fridays are persistently lower than other days of the week. The school reached 98 percent attendance on the first day of state testing, after starting with 92 percent attendance that Monday and finishing the week with 93 percent attendance.
“If it’s 90 (percent) or below, I’m on the horn constantly,” said Curtis, who checks in with families if students are consistently running late or missing class. “We are on their side; we help in whatever way we can.”
Van Corlaer’s steps to emphasize and improve attendance comes as the district ramps up a broader awareness campaign on social media and in classrooms. Karen Corona, the district’s spokeswoman, uses social media to share statistics about the importance of attendance, as well as motivational quotes, on a daily basis.
A sign in front of Van Corlear Elementary School shows the attendance percentage for a recent school day. (Marc Schultz)
“Students only benefit from instruction if they are in class,” read one recent tweet. And teachers are tweeting back under the hashtag ProjectBeHere, sharing pictures of students with perfect attendance chowing down on celebratory pizza, or classes publicizing that everyone was in attendance that day.
One teacher tweeted a summary of a back-and-forth with a student in class: Student: I called D last night. Teacher: Yeah? Student: Yeah, to see how he was feeling and if he was coming today cuz we need full attendance.
In recent years, the district’s overall average daily attendance has hovered around 90 percent. In the fourth quarter of last school year, 150 Schenectady High School students recorded at least 20 absences. Around 300 high school students each quarter missed between six and 10 school days, and about 1,300 high school students each quarter recorded between one and five absences.
This year, all of the district’s schools saw a drop in attendance from the first to the second quarter – a drop officials partly blamed on the flu season. At the high school, the number of students missing 20 days or more – just under half of the school days in the quarter – rose from 120 in the first quarter to 170 in the second quarter. The number of high school students missing between 11 and 19 days increased from 223 in the first quarter to 315 in the second quarter. Mont Pleasant Middle school went from 31 students in first quarter missing between 11 and 19 days to nearly 80 students in second quarter.
The attendance page of the district’s quarterly report on student academics, behavior and attendance is stamped with “Priority” in bold red letters.
High school officials are working to create a school climate that makes students want to be in class, developing programs and courses that give students more personalized attention and looking to connect students with adults who make them feel comfortable. School administrators in January converted one of the school’s two in-school suspension rooms to a space for students struggling with attendance problems or students who are in need of a place to calm themselves for a moment.
Nicholas Larkins, who joined the high school staff about a year ago as a school security monitor, was moved into a new role focused on attendance in recent weeks. Larkins works with students struggling with attendance, both one-on-one and in groups, leading as many as two “attendance circles” each day. In the circles, Larkins leads discussion among a small group of students about what is keeping them from class and how they can better work through those challenges. He said the key is to help the students surface the thing that drives them -- the thing that gets them up in the morning -- whether that is art, music or a dream career.
“They have a motivation; they do have the desire,” Larkins said. “The thing is, they don’t remember to hold on to it.”
A rotation of school psychologists and social workers join Larkins in the new space, so there is always a specialist available to meet with students.
“We are here to help you solve the problem that is keeping you away from the classroom,” said Rafael Medina, a school psychologist, explaining how he frames the conversation with students.
Out of 61 students who have participated in the attendance circles over the past month, about one-third have made significant improvements in attendance, administrator Phil Weinman said.
Last year, junior Mya Langille was cited for 23 behavioral incidents and missed over 200 classes. She spent time in a different room in the high school focused on supporting students at risk of falling far off course or dropping out all together. This year she has had two behavioral incidents and missed 70 classes, nearly tripling her grade-point average.
“I learned coping skills and worked on myself more than ever before,” she said, adding that sometimes all she needs to get through a rough moment in school is a couple of minutes to talk to her mom or girlfriend on the phone or listen to a song.
“I take a minute, settle down, and I’m right back in class,” she said. “I get my mind back on track and back in class.”