In a series of visits to schools on Tuesday, Baltimore city schools CEO Andrés Alonso stressed the importance of regular student attendance.
It's an area that the school system has identified as one of its biggest challenges, and improvement in attendance is one of the biggest goals of the new school year — which began this week.
Last year, more than 6,000 students missed at least 20 percent of school, and this year the district will begin initiatives such as requiring school officials to call parents when students are absent and offering incentives for high attendance rates.
The educational efforts of teachers and administrators are undermined, Alonso said, by the achievement gaps that exist between students who habitually attend school and those who don't. The achievement gap, which can reach about 20 percent, he said, "dwarfs everything else."
On Alonso's circuit Tuesday was the Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton Elementary/Middle School — a school Alonso said "a few years ago, nobody wanted to attend," but ranked among the most popular schools for fifth-graders who were able to choose where to attend middle school this year.
"The difference between this school three years ago and today is night and day," Alonso said. "But still, our goal is to make sure that every school is an exemplary school. For that to happen, it's very much about the community."
The school has a science, technology, engineering and mathematics focus, and is managed by an external operator. About 711 of the academy's 730 students showed up for school on the first day.
Principal Tanya Green said the school took a community-centered approach to ensuring high student attendance this year, having spent the summer reaching out to parents through phone trees and home visits from the school's attendance monitor.
She said the school's staff also spent about $1,100 on book bags, school supplies and uniforms for students who may need them. Many parents don't send their students to school without those essentials, Green said, so the school wanted to make sure that wasn't an excuse this year.
"It's about leaving parents with dignity and children with pride," she said. "They need to feel and look like everyone else."
The staff used their own money and aggressively pursued donations, Green said, adding that "we even asked the mailman," for a contribution.
Alonso also visited the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, where high school students are studying health professions. The curriculum includes a simulation room for students to practice on dummy patients, and partnerships with area health institutions.
At the Vivien T. Thomas Academy, Alonso said he saw exemplary and engaging instruction in the school's classrooms. In one classroom, Alonso watched as students participated in an interactive exercise to establish class rules. During the exercise, tenth-graders and their teacher, Kyle Ali, exchanged ideas about taking responsibility for their education.
"I base my philosophy inside the classroom to create an environment where it's as engaging as possible," Ali said. "If we're going to focus on attendance, you have to make them want to be here."
One of Ali's tenth-graders, Dionna Lesane, had no qualms about telling the teacher that it was also not OK for him to take a day off if he needed a break. Attendance is a gospel in her household, she said, as her grandmother accepts no excuses when it comes to being in school.
"All of my sisters never really went to school, so I'm all she has left," Lesane said. "She wants me to be something, and I need an education."