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Absenteeism rife at Boston high schools

City efforts make meager headway

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Carynn Donald, a ninth-grader at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, recently had lunch with City Year worker Leah Duncan, who is helping Donald be more successful at school.

More than a third of the students in Boston public high schools were chronically absent last year, even as the city undertook additional efforts to lure students to school, according to a Globe analysis.

At East Boston High School, half of the students missed at least 19 days, more than 10 percent of the school year. The rates of chronic absenteeism were even higher at Brighton High, Charlestown High, and Dorchester Academy. Across the city, 7,400 high school students were chronically absent.

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The figures illustrate the enormous challenges most local high schools face in keeping students in class, and more significantly, preventing them from quitting altogether. Boston high schools plagued by absenteeism tended to have among the highest dropout rates, the analysis of attendance data showed.

“I think it is absolutely a crisis,’’ said Ranny Bledsoe, headmaster at Charlestown High School, where she has revamped a number of programs to make school more meaningful to students, but also has been hampered by budget cuts. “Are we doing enough to address it? Absolutely not.’’

Students miss school for a variety of reasons: They may be sick, homeless, working, or taking care of a sibling or their own child. Other times, they skip to avoid being bullied, or because they are bored with classes, struggling academically, or frustrated that they are so far behind that they think they will never graduate.

Carynn Donald, a ninth-grader at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, estimates that she has missed a dozen days this year, often because she woke up tired and went back to sleep. Donald said her interest in school waned in the fourth or fifth grade when the homework became more difficult and she had to repeat two grades in middle school.

“Sometimes, I really don’t want to go to school,’’ said Donald, 16. “I don’t like school.’’

Yet all she has to do to get to school is walk across Washington Street to the Burke, where each morning City Year volunteers sing, clap, and dance as students arrive.

The Burke has made some headway with Donald. Leah Duncan, a City Year member, has been calling Donald’s mother when she misses class and occasionally has lunch with Donald and tutors her.

In the school cafeteria last week, Donald sat next to Duncan and pledged to keep coming to school. Donald was encouraged when one day in math class she grasped a concept before her classmates did.

Schools have launched multipronged strategies, making classes more appealing to students by using technology during lectures and having students do hands-on projects during class, and enlisting volunteers to help track down absentees. Much of the work began more than a decade ago and received renewed attention shortly after Carol R. Johnson became superintendent in August 2007.

But the extent of the problem has rarely been discussed. The School Department does not routinely release data on absenteeism, and the Globe received it only after repeated requests. A portion of the data was also obtained under a state public records request.

For this analysis, chronic absenteeism was defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year, a benchmark commonly recommended by national experts on the issue.

The Boston School Department instructs principals to focus extra attendance efforts on students who missed more than 10 percent of the previous school year.

However, Boston does not officially consider students to be chronically absent until they miss more than 20 percent of a school year, or at least 37 days. Nearly 1 out 5 high school students fell in that category, according to the Globe analysis.

“All of us are concerned when students are not in school,’’ Johnson said. “We want to make sure we follow up on those students, and when they come to school that they have engaging enough experiences so they want to stay.’’

She emphasized that schools cannot solve the problem entirely on their own; they need to work in partnership with the students, their families, and in some cases outside health and social service agencies.

Under Johnson’s tenure, chronic absenteeism has dropped. In the 2006-07 school year, 39 percent of high school students missed more than 10 percent of the year, compared to 35 percent last year, according to the Globe analysis.

It’s unclear how Boston’s chronic absenteeism compares with that in other urban districts across the country. No national average exists because definitions vary among states and school districts, national experts say.

But Boston appears to be on par with New York City, where 35 percent of high school students missed at least 20 days during the 2009-10 school year, according to the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, a policy research institute.

Baltimore has a higher rate: 42 percent of high school students missed more than 20 days last year, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

To improve the rates, schools must move from purely enforcement measures to making fundamental changes in high school education, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national organization devoted to lowering chronic absenteeism.

“You have to create a climate for kids so they want to go to school,’’ said Chang, noting that when rates swell above 50 percent, schools are facing a major crisis. “Chronic absenteeism is a leading indicator of whether a school is on track.’’

Lindsa McIntyre, principal of the Burke, said she has put attendance front and center. In a hallway, handwritten signs give kudos to students who have developed good attendance habits, and staff meet weekly to discuss and tackle attendance issues. Case managers from the Boston Public Health Commission, who work with the school, visit the homes of chronically absent students.

At the same time, McIntyre is overhauling instruction and has extended the school day to help students catch up academically.

“It’s so important they are here every day,’’ she said. “We start the day off with breakfast for every child, and we even have a to-go breakfast for students who arrive late so they don’t miss any learning.’’

A frustration among many Boston high school principals is that too many students arrive as freshman ill prepared. Bledsoe said half of the incoming freshmen last year at Charlestown High had failed their core courses in eighth grade, but were socially promoted to high school. Their weak academic preparation, she said, makes it difficult for them to succeed.

In response, Bledsoe has created a special academy for ninth-graders to give them more individualized attention. She also has created academies for 11th- and 12th-graders that focus on preparing them for college or a career, and she has partnered with the nonprofit Diploma Plus program to work with the most severely lagging students.

Sung-Joon Pai, director of Diploma Plus, believes that if schools remain vigilant about attendance, students will change their habits.

“It is very difficult to unpack all the different factors that cause students to be tardy or absent,’’ Pai said. “Our hope is that if we can get all our students at least communicating with us daily, we can get them into school daily.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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