CMSD is waging a communitywide campaign – complete with billboards, yard signs, bus placards and radio spots – aimed at raising school attendance.
The “Get to School. You Can Make It!” campaign will target an epidemic: In nearly two-thirds of District schools, more than half of the students are chronically absent – defined as missing 10 days or more per year.
Cleveland joins school districts and communities across the country that have taken on the problem of chronic absenteeism. Attendance Works, a federal and state initiative that is providing guidance to the Cleveland campaign, reports on the effects and solutions.
CMSD’s data shows the absences lead to a sharp decline in test scores and put high school students at risk of dropping out. Missing 10 days or more cuts scores on state reading tests by an average of 12 points and math scores by 15 points; missing those days in ninth or 10th grades can leave a student with a 4-in-10 chance of staying on track to graduation.
“We are making gains under the reforms spelled out in The Cleveland Plan,” Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon said. “But we can’t educate children who regularly fail to show up for school. We count on families to help by doing their part.”
CMSD kicked off the campaign July 22 at the Boys and Girls Club on Broadway Avenue in the Slavic Village neighborhood. Gordon, who served as master of ceremonies, was joined by several hundred parents, students, fellow educators, clergy, elected officials and community partners.
Participants signed cards that will be circulated during the campaign, pledging to take steps that will help the cause. The public can sign the pledge, volunteer to help, get campaign news and follow the campaign on social media at www.get2schoolcleveland.com
Guests included Rashee and Wadell Brooks, parents of 10 children who have maintained perfect attendance while attending CMSD schools. Three of the children are in college, two are in high school and three attend K-8 schools.
The father and mother insisted that their children be in school every day, believing that education instills discipline, work ethic and social skills and makes them role models and community pillars. Rashee said establishing the practice with the older children set a pattern for their siblings.
"It just became routine," he said. "It worked very well. They wanted to go to school, they wanted to learn."
Daughter Tayla graduated from the Garrett Morgan School of Science this year and will major in biology at Baldwin-Wallace University. She acknowledged that going to school every day wasn't easy but said it paid off.
"I feel like it did benefit me," she said. "You have to show up when you have a job. It set a foundation for me."
A problem across the United States
From Connecticut to California, leaders have rallied their communities around the cause, rewarded good attendance and used data to identify problem cases. Examples of strategies can be found on the Attendance Works website under the "What Works" tab.
Pittsburgh’s Be There! campaign, headed into its third year, has boosted attendance in virtually all of the city’s public schools. The campaign was sparked by the Pittsburgh superintendent’s concerns about absenteeism but spans Allegheny County, with about half of the 43 school districts participating.
Be There! uses a positive message to encourage good attendance, said Kathryn Vargas, manager of programs for youth and children at the United Way of Allegheny County, point agency for the campaign.
Schools devise plans for solving attendance problems, and some share data with the county to determine whether families need support services.
The campaign includes an annual conference on attendance. About 15 community partners meet quarterly to discuss strategies, but they represent only a fraction of the 300 partners who are involved.
“We do try to cast a wide net to make sure this is a community issue,” Vargas said.
Attendance Works Director Hedy Nai-Lin Chang said one in 10 children nationwide are chronically absent from school, but the rate can rise much higher in communities like Cleveland where more families live in poverty. She said the problem can start as early as kindergarten or first grade and set children on a path to frustration and failure.
"If you're not reading by the end of third grade, your chances of catching up are very small," she said.
Chang said students with poor attendance fall into three categories: those whose parents don't grasp the impact of frequent absences, those who face barriers like a lack of access to good health care or transportation and those who avoid school because of bullying and other negative forces.
Encouraging students and families to make school a priority and ensuring that students feel welcome there can bring an immediate bump in attendance, Chang said. But she said in cases where absences persist, schools may have to turn to personal contact with a student or intensive support, including, as a last resort, legal action.
Gordon pledged a comprehensive and visible campaign, marked not only by billboards, yard signs, bus placards, radio spots and social media messages but, when warranted, home visits and phone calls. CMSD has enlisted a number of community partners, including school unions, the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, Radio One, the Regional Transit Authority, Patriot Signage, Clear Channel, United Way of Greater Cleveland, Neighborhood Progress Inc. and Greater Cleveland Congregations.
The CEO and other campaign leaders acknowledge that parents’ work schedules and other challenges can sometimes make it hard to get children to school, but the consequences of chronic absenteeism are just as harsh.
Failure in school can doom students to bleak futures by limiting options for college or career. It also deprives the community of the educated workforce required to thrive economically in the 21st Century.
With all that at stake, CMSD plans to rally a coalition of supporters like those who helped win voter approval of a desperately needed operating levy in 2012 and a bond issue for building and renovating schools last year.
"Thoughtful, organized, citywide campaigns raised awareness of the critical need to invest in Cleveland's schools and improved school facilities in every neighborhood," Gordon said. "A citywide campaign to raise awareness of the link between low attendance and low achievement is worth the investment if the end result is improved school attendance and higher achievement for kids."