Diedre Reeder barely needs to look at the class attendance sheets as she makes her rounds at Franklin Square Elementary and Middle School every morning.  As the school’s attendance monitor, Reeder says she can simply look in the classroom and see who’s missing.

On most days, that’s not too many kids.  Despite the poverty outside the school and the crowded classrooms inside, Franklin Square consistently registers one of the highest attendance rates in Baltimore.  Recently, a fifth grade classroom crammed with 39 students boasted 32 kids with perfect attendance for the month.

Reeder and her principal, Terry Patton, have created a “culture of attendance,” where students know they are expected to come to school, where parents know they’ll get a call if their children don’t show up and where the community helps tackle barriers to attendance with everything from free dental care to in-school haircuts to clean uniforms.

The high-rise office buildings of the Baltimore skyline glimmer barely a mile from Franklin Square, but the row houses that surround the campus are run down, boarded up, or burned out . School records show 91 percent of the 390 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price meals.  Poverty is often linked to chronic absence, and Baltimore has plenty of both.  Citywide, about 14 percent of elementary students and 17 percent of middle schoolers missed 20 or more days last year.

Franklin Square, with a 6 percent chronic absence rate last year and 3 percent the year before, is beating the odds.  Principal Patton said she began paying attention to attendance when she arrived at the school seven years ago.  “I took at the data and I realized [chronic absence] might be part of the problem,” she recalled.  “Maybe the kids aren’t here.”

Patton now meets with the family of every new student and talks about the importance of attendance.  If the child is transferring from another school, she reviews their records, looking carefully for any sign of past attendance problems.

The principal’s data dashboard, with weekly information from the central office, shows Patton who’s missing 10 or fewer days and who’s missing 20 or more.  She can view this by classroom, grade, and individual student.

And then, she’s got Reeder.  The attendance monitor calls the home of every absent student.  After three days, she sends the family a letter and talks to parents about why their child is missing school.  “If they say ‘death in the family,’ I ask them for the obituary,” Reeder said.  Once she found that a child’s caregiver, an elderly grandmother, was sick.  So Reeder picked up the student and brought her to school.

As Reeder shows off the perfect attendance bulletin board, a group of middle school students gathers nearby.  “Take that hat off,” she tells one of them.  “You’d better stop drinking that soda,” she tells another.

“Yes, Miss Reeder,” they respond, giggling.

Beyond its explicit attendance policies, Franklin Square offers an engaging environment that keeps kids wanting to come to school.  A program called Path to Pax teaches positive behavior techniques so that students learn how to handle confrontations and can focus more on learning.

Afterschool programs offer sports, clubs, even junior ROTC.  Patton brings in a barber to give kids a good haircut and with it a sense of self-esteem.  Rather than send students home when they are out of uniform, she keeps neatly folded khakis and polo shirts on hand.  She offers asthma and dental clinics and won a state grant to serve healthier food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, at lunch.

The school building also hosts a food bank, Head Start program, day care center, and programs run in partnership with sororities and churches.

“We treat people the way we want to be treated,” Patton said.  “We make sure the children feel like they matter, and the families feel like they matter.”

Revised September 2011