A city school has reduced its absenteeism rate by more than three quarters. In school year 2012-13, School 5 had 152 students, who were chronically absent, out of class more than 10-percent of the year; in school year 2013-14, only 36 students were chronically absent, according to data presented to the school board during a presentation last week.
“This is truly remarkable for you to have decreased absenteeism by 76-percent,” said Errol Kerr, school board member, following the presentation by Sandra Diodonet, principal of the school.
Diodonet took a mentoring approach to reducing student absences. “We’ve targeted this challenge of absenteeism that impacts student achievement through an initiative that we call success mentor[ship],” said the principal.
She said when a student returns to school after being absent the previous day, a success mentor visits the student’s homeroom to inquire about him or her. The mentor, who knows the student by name, asks the student how he or she is doing, adding: “We missed you yesterday.”
Diodonet said when a student misses two days, he misses 11 hours of instructional time. “If you are missing 11 hours of instruction, you are missing a lot,” said Diodonet.
“You miss a day, you miss a whole lot,” is a common mantra in her school said the principal.
Special education teachers and student aides volunteer their time towards checking-in, a process where the mentors conduct daily check on the mentees, sort of demonstrating their presence at the school is desired.
The volunteers are rewarded with certificates and sometimes lunch.
In cases where, a student misses a large number of days, Diodonet calls the student’s homeroom to speak to that particular student directly on the phone. She called one homeroom of a student, who missed four days by the first half of October. She asked the student what’s going on, he has missed four days already.
She said the students naturally cooperate, when the adults communicate the importance of attendance.
“I don’t think every principal in America could call a kid up in their homeroom and say ‘I need to talk to you,’ and come out with a positive result, but if you have relationships with them that could happen,” said Diodonet.
The principal said students miss school for a variety of reasons: dirty uniform, bussing issues, and waking up late.
“Uniform is becoming a reason why some parents are not sending their kids to school because they don’t have a clean uniform,” said Wendy Guzman, school board member. “To me that’s not a valid excuse. It shouldn’t be an excuse at all.”
The principal said she would just like to see the students in school with or without uniform, but said she would never discourage uniform. Instead, Diodonet allows students at her school to sport a superhero t-shirt during Wednesdays, the middle of the week, because she said, these students are the superheroes, who will save public education.
The principal said she takes the ideas of New Jersey Positive Behavior Support in Schools (PBSIS) to heart, stating that school climate is extremely important and students really do wish to come to school; however, when the environment is not healthy, they decide against. “Success mentors along with positive climate and culture improves attendance,” said Diodonet.
School board members praised her initiative, some wishing the initiative would be replicated in other schools, so that the district would not forgo large sums of state funds due to poor pupil attendance.
Diodonet said her eyes opened when the district informed principals at a meeting that the school system is losing $16 million per year in state funding due to chronic absenteeism.
Corey Teague, school board member, said he would like this program expanded to other schools in the district.
“I think we should use this as a model policy at some of our other buildings,” said Kerr.