Students who couldn't miss Attendance: Pressured by a dedicated PTA president, 400 city students who completed two years of perfect attendance will be rewarded with a banquet.

June 13, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Great oaks from little acorns grow, the proverb says, and Theresa Gwynn knows it's true.

About six years ago, Gwynn's three sons faced peer pressure to start skipping school in their South Baltimore neighborhood. She fought back with pressure of her own -- G. I. Joe action figures and free pizza if they had perfect attendance. It worked.

So she offered her "G. I. Joe rewards" to her sons' elementary and middle schools. And that worked so well that she took her idea to five other schools in Cherry Hill. Now it's outgrown the neighborhood, reaching 24 schools in the southern district.

Today she'll honor 400 students at the Holiday Inn at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a banquet luncheon complete with sparkling punch and appetizers. To attend, they must have at least two consecutive years of perfect attendance.

"I'm very excited about going to a big hotel to eat lots of pizza and drink a ton of soda, all just for my perfect attendance," said Tiesha Hope, a fifth-grader at George Washington Elementary School. "It hasn't been the easiest thing to come everyday; it's been really hard and tough.

"There's been a few times, especially during the winter, when I've had a runny nose and just brought my tissues to class with me, because I don't want to break my record."

But she hasn't missed a day since prekindergarten.

That's because Gwynn's program is probably the strictest in the city, school officials say. Gwynn, 44, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Carver Vocational Technology High School, allows no excuses for runny noses, coughs, or just plain being tired of teachers. She gets her records from the schools' principals, and she's looking only for those who haven't missed a day in two to six years.

Even a legitimate absence such as chicken pox or an operation bars a student from the luncheon, though a "near-perfect" attendance certificate will be sent.

The state uses attendance to measure a school's quality, making it a priority of the city's school system, state officials say.

"When kids show up for school they pass, they move on and

they graduate," said Dr. Will Jordan, an associate research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "If the kid is there they get the coaching classes they need and any other resources, but if he's not, it's a whole new ballpark."

Gwynn says she earns nothing from her attendance program.

"I want to save our children that are out there dying at a rapid rate, simply because they're not going to school," Gwynn said. "I feel like there are more kids dying on the streets than are crossing the stage to graduate, and that bothers me.

"Education is just too important to just let kids not go and learn," she said. "Not everybody's going to be on the honor roll, and not everybody's going to be a scholar, but this is a way to give children a pat on the back for their honest efforts of just making their way to a safe haven -- a school -- among all the garbage that's out there."

Gwynn began encouraging her three boys -- forcing, they say -- to not miss a day of school about six years ago when they began feeling the peer pressure to skip school.

Her rule -- no school, move out. "I don't have dropouts," she said. "If you think you're going to drop out, you're also going to move out of my household."

Gwynn even carried one son up to his second-floor classrooms when he broke his right leg five years ago. He broke the same leg twice in that year, she said, and neither time did he miss a single day of school.

"It was the foot that was broken, not the brain," she said. "There's nothing wrong with a child's hands or head when they've broken his leg. He went to school."

She turned her G. I. Joe rewards for her own children into little parties for her sons' classes at Carter G. Woodson Elementary and Cherry Hill Elementary School five years ago. Each school joined Gwynn's incentive program soon after, and she started arm-twisting businesses for donations. Roy Rogers gave coupons for fries, 7-Eleven chipped in with Big Gulps, and Domino's Pizza kicked in 2,000 slices of pizza.

Three years ago, the group of honorees got so big that she started moving the ceremony to hotel banquet rooms. And this year for the first time, all 400 honorees will get a free trip to Adventure World water park in Largo.

In addition, five students who haven't missed a day of school in six years and 10 who have gone each day for five years also will receive a free night in a city hotel with their parents.

"She's a nag, she's a pest, she cajoles, she pleads and she begs to get donations for those students with perfect attendance, but she always does it with a smile and she never gives up," said Gary Thrift, area assistant superintendent for the school system's southern schools.

Her slogan when soliciting is: "I'm going to save your life."

"I say that to people, and their eyes bug out and they really start listening to me," she said. "I tell them that if they don't invest the time and interest with these kids now, these could potentially be the kids who may be out on the streets killing their own kid or their wife."

Patapsco Elementary School has 32 students with perfect attendance and has the highest overall attendance rate in the city, according to officials. George Washington Elementary School followed with 30 students, then Lombard Middle with 25.

Gwynn isn't satisfied with just 400 students who have perfect attendance.

"In four years, I'll have all 178 Baltimore city schools participating in this attendance program," she said. "I've just got to find a place big enough to hold all those students."

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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