Students' poor performance linked to attendance State 'report card' on schools draws attention to problem of chronic absenteeism in area.

November 14, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff Reporters Larry Carson, Monica Norton and Norris West contributed to this story.

In a table showing performance of Baltimore's elementary

schools in yesterday's Evening Sun, the heading showing the "Satisfactory" level of attendance according to State Board of Education standards was incorrect. The Satisfactory attendance level should have been 94 percent.

The Evening Sun regrets the errors.

Students can't learn if they don't go to class.

A truism? Sure.

But in Baltimore, where nearly four in 10 students missed more than a month of school last year, it's a cold reality.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

According to the annual state "report card" on local schools, 36.7 percent of Baltimore students missed more than 20 days of school last year.

The percentage was far higher at many of the city's high schools and middle schools, with some reporting that three-quarters of their students missed more than a month of school.

By contrast, chronic absenteeism averaged 16.8 percent statewide, a rate matched by only a handful of the city's secondary schools.

"Students are giving us a message," said Phillip H. Farfel, a city school board member who chaired a task force that focused on attendance. "They're voting with their feet in some instances. And we've got to listen."

Meanwhile, school officials elsewhere in the Baltimore area were busy yesterday explaining attendance in their own school systems, and how they intend to improve it.

In the city, attendance was just one area of concern on a report card filled with red marks.

Overall, Baltimore fell short on all but one of 13 standards in the state report, part of a multi-year effort to hold local schools accountable for the quality of education.

But the high absentee figures grabbed the spotlight, with school system observers drawing a connection between poor attendance and poor academic performance.

"No matter how much money is being spent in the classroom, if the kid's not there, it won't matter," said Jeff Valentine, a spokesman forthe Greater Baltimore Committee. "Attendance is critical."

"One cannot successfully educate students who aren't there," said Jerry Baum, executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a citizens' group. "I believe that some part of that relates to how the students are performing in the school."

School administrators admit that they have a serious problem.

"Your first thought is, somebody is asleep at the switch," said Walter G. Amprey, school superintendent. "We've got to examine what in the world is going on in the schools. We've got to find out what is keeping students out of school."

But the raw numbers require more study, according to Denise G. Borders, chief of accountability for the city school system.

"We know we have to deal with attendance, and we know that's related to programs and instruction," said Borders.

But she said other factors may affect a school's performance, including the composition of the student body, the experience of the staff and the background of parents.

There are a variety of reasons why students miss so much school, said Farfel.

Many develop a poor attitude toward school -- and poor attendance habits -- in early childhood, he said.

Other students may miss school for disciplinary reasons. School officials are trying to address that problem through alternative approaches to discipline that don't involve keeping children out of school.

For many children, "it may be that the program may not be meeting their needs," said Farfel. That suggests a need for stronger career and technical education, and a push toward "making the climate conducive to learning, to make school fun, to make it exciting."

Attendance is a constant struggle for those on the educational front-lines -- the school principals.

"In the inner city, students can find so many other things that can compete with school for their attendance," said Samuel Billups, principal of Walbrook Senior High School.

His school posted the highest chronic absentee rate of any regular high school in the city, with 76.2 percent of the students absent more than a month last year.

Billups attributed the high rate in part to the fact that Walbrook shared space with Southwestern High School for several years while Walbrook's building was shut down for an asbestos-removal project.

Students had to take special buses to school during that time, saidBillups, and attendance dropped as a result. He expects to see it improve this year, with the student body back in its own building.

But Walbrook is taking other steps as well, including a computer that will monitor daily attendance, helping the staff to inform parents when students miss school.

"The real secret is to have good parent involvement," said Billups. "I haven't found a parent yet who will condone their children not being in school."

Parental involvement is also a key to the relatively low, 14.4 percent chronic absentee rate at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School.

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