Principal Spotlight: Engaging Students for Better Attendance
Principal Joshua Solomon can gauge the magnitude of the absenteeism problem at his New York City high school even before the freshman class arrives. By looking at eighth grade records, he knows that nearly two fifths of students coming in have been chronically absent in the previous year. And he knows who they are.
So from Day 1, Solomon and his staff at the Business of Sports School launched a series of steps to keep students in school and reduce absenteeism. That meant starting with an engaging curriculum, offering incentives for good attendance and providing mentors for students who miss too many days.
“By high school, a lot of kids feel like attendance is optional,” Solomon says. “That’s what we’re working on.”
Solomon’s first asset is a school curriculum built around the business and vocational skills needed in the sports world—a subject designed to engage teenagers. The 460-student school in Hell’s Kitchen partners with New York’s professional sports teams, allowing students to develop connections beyond the schoolyard.
The school also offers incentives for good attendance. The advisory with the best attendance wins a pizza party. Students with perfect attendance are invited to a pancake breakfast. And those with the most improved attendance receive a framed certificate. “It makes a difference and it actually makes it home,” Solomon said. “I’ve been to students’ houses, and I’ve seen the certificates framed and sitting on the wall.”
For students who were chronically absent in past years and those with poor attendance in the current year, the school assigns “success mentors,” part of a citywide strategy to improve attendance. These staff members take on one or two students and work with them on any challenges to attendance. Staff members are asked to log their interactions with students and receive rewards for the additional work they do. The school sets up lunches for mentors and the students they work with.
If a mentor identifies a challenge to attendance, such as transportation or childcare issues, the information is shared with the school’s attendance team. Students with deeper problems or more severe absenteeism are assigned mentors from community based organizations, who come to the school.
The extra attention leads to improved attendance in many cases, Solomon said. Students with mentors attended on average eight more days than they had in the previous year. About 28 percent of the chronically absent students improved their attendance enough to exit chronic absence. There was a slight uptick in the school’s overall attendance rate.
The strategy depends on attention to data. The school tracks chronic absence among students. It tracks the interactions that students have with their success mentors. An attendance team meets weekly to discuss the numbers and plot new approaches to improving attendance.
Solomon also uses the data to show students where they stand. “I go into the advisories and I print out what their attendance record is for the year,” he says, “I say: ‘This is where you are and this is where you should be.’ It makes them aware.”