Ask Principal Mike Chalupa about any attendance problems at City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore, and he tilts his head quizzically. There was that spell when a lot of students were tardy, but he resolved that by setting a clear policy and wearing a giant sign around his neck at morning drop-off to promote a culture of punctuality.

“We don’t need to worry much about children missing school altogether,” Chalupa says. “We know we’ve got a program that makes kids want to come to school and feel like they’ll miss something if they don’t come.”

City Neighbors uses a project-based learning style, involving its students in long-term, hands-on activities and team work that keep them coming back day after day. “The work matters,” he says. “If you’re not there, you notice, your team notices.”

Amid all the strategies for improving attendance and recapturing chronically absent students, many administrators overlook the obvious:  make school an interesting, engaging place to be, and the students will come.

At City Neighbors, that means first graders are working on a huge mural of a city complete with houses, streets, parking lots, shoe stores, and anything the children imagine in their community.  This community isn’t built in a day.  The students work on it throughout the year, adding pieces continuously.

In the second grade classroom, students are busy presenting their bird’s nests.  Each child spends three to four months learning about a particular species of bird, and this particular week their task is to research and then create the kind of nest that bird might use.

In the middle school grades, every student must complete a year-long independent project.  They create their own proposals, which must be approved by a panel of teachers.

City Neighbors serves about 200 students in kindergarten through 8th grade, with about 22 students in the primary grades, all in one class with a teacher and an assistant.  Students have two blocks of reading each day, as well as math, science, history, and a weekly art workshop.

Starting in 4th grade, the students move to different teachers for social studies, science, math and English along with music, gym, and art.  They also have advisories and electives.  The overall class sizes are larger, but the students often work in smaller groups of 12-15 students per teacher.

About half of the students qualify for federal meal subsidies.  The charter school has recently opened a high school embracing a similar educational approach.

Parents are engaged as well and commit to giving 40 hours to the school every year.  Some volunteer in classes.  Some help with fundraising.  One dad built a bookshelf.  “If your child is in a charter school, somehow you’ve invested as a parent,” says teacher Shane Bennett. “It’s a feeling of ownership of this place.”

Based in a church parish hall, the school uses every bit of available space.  During reading time in the third grade classroom, kids are lying on the floor, sprawled across a table, even sitting on top of a bookshelf.

Despite the curriculum’s drawing power, the school does have occasional problems with absenteeism.  But in this small school, they are often resolved on a case-by-case basis.  One family was having difficulties while the mother received treatment for cancer.  The school social worker began swinging by to pick up the children on the way to school.

In another case, a single father had to be at work by 5 a.m. and did not want his daughter walking to school alone. So he dropped her off at a neighbor’s house on the way to work, where she sleeps in until breakfast and goes to school with the other family.  When children are sick, the office calls the home on the first day of illness and monitors the situation.

Because of the team-based approach to learning, students recognize the importance of showing up, too.  They have a harder time completing their work when their friends miss school.  That means students actually encourage each other to come to school.  Once, when a fifth grade girl was having trouble with attendance, a group of friends would cheer her on every time she made it to school.

Then there was the tardiness problem. The school’s casual style led to parents lingering and students arriving late. So the school developed a policy, setting a firm start time and requiring parents who come late to walk into the school and sign in their tardy children.

To help enforce it, Principal Chalupa straps a sign around his neck and walks outside in the morning:  it starts out as a tie-dye sign reading “Good Morning.”  He then flips to a yellow sign when it’s time to come inside the school. Red means students are late, and parents must sign them in.  “We started with 40 kids late out of 200,” he recalls. “Now five kids late is a big deal.”

Revised September 2011