Bloomberg Tweaks Approach to Improve School Attendance

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With six days to go before the start of school, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is launching one more effort to combat chronic absenteeism before leaving office at the end of the year.

He unveiled on Tuesday a pilot program to offer after-school tutoring and mentoring at a center in Harlem. The program would be run in collaboration with the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, the Police Athletic League and the Department of Education.

Students will be directed to the engagement center through various routes: the schools, the Department of Probation and PAL's sports program for at-risk youth, called "Saturday Night Lights."

Bloomberg said one out of five city students is chronically absent, or 200,000 children, and those students are less likely to graduate and more likely to wind up in prison.

"If 200,000 kids miss a month of school every year you've got a big problem, and that's why we've been working on this for years and we've made big improvements," he said.

This comes on the heels of a major anti-truancy effort launched three years ago -- including wake-up calls featuring the voices of celebrities such as Magic Johnson, Whoopi Goldberg and John Legend -- that has shown modest gains in attendance rates.  City officials said of the 100 schools involved 35 percent of elementary students, 30 percent of middle schoolers and 21 percent of high school students improved their attendance, no longer falling into the category of "chronically absent," or missing a month or more of school. 

Average daily attendance in the public schools has gone up in every borough since the Interagency Task Force started. In total, it's has climbed by almost 1 percentage point since 2003-2004, to nearly 90 percent.

Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt said one feature of the new program announced Tuesday was the kind of mentor tapped to help at-risk students. Instead of  social work and education students, or AmeriCorps volunteers, the new program will use the mentors the students choose. 

"It's going to be self-selected by the student," explained Leslie Cornfeld, who chairs the mayor's Interagency Task Force on Truancy. "We know that many students have a connection or person in the school, so we are reaching out to that person in the school, congratulating them for being identified by a student as that important presence in the school and recruiting that particular person to be a mentor for that student."

The school mentors will be paired with trained advocates who work at the engagement center.

Other key stats on school attendance on truancy:

-School attendance is lowest in the Bronx (89.44 percent) and highest in Queens (91.97 percent). Brooklyn had the greatest gains, of more than three percentage points since 2003-04. Those numbers do not include charter schools.

-District 7 in the South Bronx has the lowest average daily attendance rate, at 87.68 percent. That barely changed at all since 2003-04 when it was 88.36 percent.

-Among high schools, average attendance for ninth graders has gone up from 80.19 percent in 2003-04 to 86.22 percent last year and there were also gains among tenth graders. But 11th grade attendance stagnated and 12th grade attendance fell from 87.4 percent In 2003-04 to last year's 86.36 percent.

-The city knows that 79 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have records of chronic absenteeism, and 66 percent of students with child welfare cases are chronically absent or severely chronically absent.