Only 79 percent of city students show up 1st day Officials disappointed after extensive summer preparations

Some blame early start

September 07, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

This year was supposed to be different.

Baltimore school officials had done more than they ever had this summer to get parents and children to understand the importance of going to school the first day -- perennially among the least well attended.

They ran immunization programs that dropped the number of noninoculated children to 2,000. They installed a new curriculum and purchased new books for every elementary student -- something that hadn't been done in more than a decade. With the city's churches, they lured more than 23,000 volunteers to participate in high-profile back-to-school activities.

But when the big day arrived Aug. 31, all of that seemed not to matter to a large number of people: Only 79 percent of their 107,000 children showed up. More than 22,000 stayed home.

School opened early this year -- before Sept. 1 and Labor Day for the first time since the early 1990s -- to accommodate a longer school year, and the early start might have contributed to the low numbers.

But the low figures despite the system's many efforts had school officials scratching their heads late last week -- wondering if they had done enough, if they had done the wrong things, or if first-day attendance is something they can do anything about at all.

"This is a problem that seems to come up in all big school systems," schools chief Robert Booker said Friday. Booker worked in the Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly 40 years, and said that district experienced the same phenomenon.

"I'm going to have my staff do some analysis and further investigation into the issue, whether it was the timing of Labor Day or an issue of when people get their monthly checks. I don't know why. But we'll continue to emphasize the importance of being in school, even on the first day."

School officials couldn't say last week whether this year's first-day figures were higher than last year's, though some said they expected them to be slightly higher. The system also can't say whether the majority of absent children were elementary, middle or high school students, or which areas of the city had the highest absentee rates.

But by the end of last week, Booker said, the system had confirmed that attendance was up to 96,000 -- about what it is on a regular basis.

"I'm not alarmed, because staff has informed me it's pretty traditional for attendance to start small and grow," Booker said.

School officials say they know some contributors to low first-day attendance.

Some parents switch their children's school at the last minute and spend the first day making sure records and other documents get transferred. Other parents, school officials said, see the first day of school as a record-keeping day in class -- much like the last day of school, which is also poorly attended.

Some school officials acknowledge that because school began before Sept. 1, some impoverished families were not able to purchase school supplies before the first day.

"A lot of our families won't send their children without the things they need," said Elizabeth Turner, principal at Tench Tilghman Elementary on North Patterson Park Avenue, where more than 95 percent of the children live in poverty.

"A lot of them haven't gotten a check since the first or third of August, so they don't have the money now to buy those things. Once they get their September checks, they'll begin to show up."

System spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said school officials believe only a few thousand children stay away from the first day of school for that reason, and it's unlikely that school opening will be moved back.

Some school and community activists pointed to other reasons for low first-day attendance -- things the school system might not be able to combat alone.

"I honestly believe a lot of people were still on vacation when school started this year," said Bernadette Forman, president of the citywide parent-teacher organization.

"I personally know a couple of people who were. There are a lot of family reunions on Labor Day weekend and things like that, and I think people made plans before they knew when school would open."

Forman said some parents didn't find out about the early start until late June or July, and that the system should publicize the start date earlier. She also suggested bringing back truancy officers to find absent children and hold their parents accountable.

"I think all the things the system did this year were wonderful, and we did everything we could to get kids out," Forman said. "But ultimately, parents need to be responsible for getting their children to school. If we had truant officers, we could hold them responsible."

Tru Ginsburg, who heads the Baltimore Education Network, said the system needs to look more closely at who doesn't show up on the first day before acting on initiatives.

"If we're going to solve problems that seem insurmountable, we're going to have to attack them from a number of different angles, with a lot of information about them," Ginsburg said.

"We need to have people go out to the houses of those children who didn't show up, and ask them why."

Ginsburg also said teachers and principals were inundated with changes this fall, and might not have been able to focus on the back-to-school blitz as much as they would have liked. Her group got the information about the campaign in late August, she said, too late to include it in their monthly newsletter or to make sure a lot of people could be involved.

More than anything, Ginsburg said, everyone needs to be patient.

"We need to understand that maybe we're doing the right things, but we just need to keep doing them, because it could take years to solve this problem," Ginsburg said.

"It's not going to happen in the first shot."

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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