Saturday, October 11, 2003

Kids rewarded for showing up

Prizes dangled during official count

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Washington Park Elementary support specialist Debra Crawford (left) and teacher Rachel Zerkle update the attendance board.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
OVER-THE-RHINE - There's a sign above a bike in the entrance of Washington Park Elementary School that reads, "Perfect attendance = New bike."

Washington Park's attendance last year averaged 89 percent, a drop from the year before. So school officials are working hard to get students to show up this year.

They're raffling off bikes, scooters, pogo sticks - even a computer.

Cincinnati Public Schools citywide are throwing pizza parties and ice cream socials, and giving away restaurant coupons and movie tickets in an effort to boost attendance.

State officials use attendance totals from the first week in October to calculate how much the state sends to school districts.

Kentucky's schools aren't under such pressure. Their state allocations are based attendance averages for the entire year, not a week.

Superintendent Alton Frailey, mindful of high absenteeism at the start of the school year, has been tough on schools to shore up their numbers, said Joe Wilmers, a social worker at Washington Park.

"We've always said that attendance is important, but we've never walked the talk,'' Wilmers said.

"This year we have teachers calling people every day and some of us (making) personal appearances at people's doors."

Wilmers on Wednesday tracked down two boys at their grandmother's West End apartment. Their mother had gone to the hospital to have a baby. Their grandmother couldn't drive them to school, so Wilmers did.

"Whatever it takes, we try to get them to school," he said.

If a student failed to show up for just one day this week, it could cost CPS 20 percent of the state's $5,058 per-pupil allocation for the year.

Last year, about 600 no-shows cost CPS $3.2 million, said Michael Geoghegan, CPS treasurer.

School districts aren't penalized if a student is ill, just for students without an excused absence.

Big school systems like CPS are already coping with fewer state dollars because enrollment is declining, Geoghegan said. Until this year, they could soften the blow by using a three-year attendance average. Legislators ended that option earlier this year.

One factor on CPS' side is the new phone system. For the first time, teachers have phones in their classrooms; they call parents of absent children in the morning.

Carson Elementary School in Price Hill takes it a step further. Its instructional assistants call parents until 4:30 p.m. each day.

"I see it improving, especially the communications with parents," said Natalie Harmeling, an assistant principal at Carson.

Attendance rates have improved. They had been 90 percent before this week at Carson; they averaged 95 percent by the end of the week.


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