Truant Students Are Heeding Their Wake-Up Calls

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Taking encouragement from the results of the first year of its efforts to improve student attendance, the city is more than doubling the number of public school students who are assigned attendance mentors this year.

For 4,000 students in elementary through high school, that means more goading and guilt-tripping to get them to wake up and get to school. But in reviewing the results of the first year of its anti-truancy campaign, the city has found that many chronically absent students who have attendance mentors fare better than those who do not.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Wednesday that of the 39,000 chronically absent students targeted by his anti-truancy task force, the 1,450 who were paired with a mentor showed the most improvement. Of those students, 450 either had normal attendance by the year’s end or had dropped to a less egregious number of absences. On average, these students were present for 16 more days than the year before, the city found.

To be labeled chronically absent, a student must have missed 20 days or more of school, and to be considered severely chronically absent, the cut is 38 days or more.

“Truancy is certainly a serious problem in schools, here in New York City and all across the country, but the gains that our mentors have made within just one year prove that we’re certainly on the right track,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “We’ve shown this is a problem that can be overcome or at least ameliorated.”

Though attendance has been improving in recent years, particularly in the elementary grades, the problem has not gone away. During the 2010-11 school year, one in five students missed a month or more of school, according to a study by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

John Feinblatt, the mayor’s chief policy adviser, who is overseeing the attendance task force, said he was surprised by the program’s effect on high school students. While 10 percent of severely chronic high school students showed significant improvement, 23 percent of the ones with mentors had a notable increase in attendance.

But pairing severely chronically absent middle school students with mentors actually made them less likely to improve than students without mentors.

"We would have predicted that middle school would be the toughest and it turns out it is," Mr. Feinblatt said, "but I think what’s most encouraging is what’s happened in the high schools."

The mayor started his anti-truancy campaign last school year in 25 schools, and it has been expanded to 50 this year, with a new focus on students returning from out-of-school suspensions, incarceration and foster care. Some schools are also experimenting with using older students as mentors for younger ones this year.

This year, the city is expanding its phone message campaign called “Wake Up! NYC,” which has bewildered city officials with its popularity. Though it began by targeting 6,500 students who had been absent for 10 or more school days, the cheesy morning alerts recorded by celebrities like Magic Johnson now have an audience of 39,000.

City officials said they planned to reward some of the most-improved chronically absent students by featuring them on the morning calls. Two students at the High School for Teaching and the Professions have already recorded their morning greetings. The singer John Legend and the model Tyra Banks will also lend their voices to the recordings.

Felix Jimenez, a senior at the High School for Teaching and the Professions, said that in the past, he regularly came to school, but often only the second half of it.

“I would miss first and second and third period. It’s like being absent,” he said. Now his father gets the wake-up call every morning, comes into his bedroom and shakes the bed, he said.