This month, Baltimore city school's interim Superintendent Tisha Edwards warned 61 principals that they could face disciplinary action if they don’t reduce high chronic absenteeism rates in their schools.
At the same time, she sent out a memo calling on all school employees to come up with more aggressive ways to reduce the district’s chronic absenteeism rate. Nearly 25 percent of city students miss more than 20 days of school annually and in some schools, that rate is greater than 65 percent.
About 800 students are enrolled at Edmondson-Westside High School, and the absenteeism rate is nearly 42 percent. But that is an improvement over two years ago when it was about 50 percent.
Monica Moore, a senior now, attended Edmondson then and said she contributed to the schools high chronic absenteeism rate. “My ninth and tenth grade year I didn't come a lot. Three or four days a week I was not here,” Moore said.
But it wasn’t that Moore was not interested in getting an education; she spent entire days at the library reading. She just wanted to get away from the school environment. “It was chaotic,” she said. “There was no structure. Kids would be everywhere. There were lots of fights, but I stayed away from that. It was like, nobody cared, so why come?”
Two years ago, district officials brought in Karl Perry as principal to try to solve the high absenteeism rate as well as other problems at Edmondson. Perry said he discovered that students were missing school for lots of reasons. “Children weren't coming here because they didn't feel comfortable coming to this school,” he said. “It wasn't the safest place in the world. There were fights everywhere: inside the halls and outside. [The students] didn't feel academically challenged. Some kids had to take care of siblings, some students may have children of their own and if it's a rainy, cold day, it's a challenge.”
Weather reduces attendance because most students use public transportation to get to school. At school, they have to walk a couple of blocks to and from separate buildings where they take academic and trade school classes.
To help, Perry gave out umbrellas. He maintains an open door policy, so he can get to know students and address their needs. He’s also given parents his cell phone number to call anytime, and he altered the class changing schedule so all of the students are not in the halls at the same time. He says this has reduced fights in the hallways. To make the building more welcoming, he had students' grey lockers painted bright red and added picnic tables outside.
“We're making sure this is a place kids want to come,” he said.
Still, a chronic absenteeism rate of 42 percent is high. Perry said he needs more resources to make a significant dent in the rate. “We need additional funding to offer more incentives and activities and of course, we could use additional staffing--more partners coming into schools,” he said. “Partners and businesses often want to come into the high flying schools or they want to focus on the little elementary schools. Too often people are forgetting about the high schools.”
To recognize the improvements Perry has made at Edmondson, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake visited the school last month to kick off her attendance campaign. Students who had made the honor roll, improved their behavior, or made other strides in school were invited to the kickoff. The mayor had a strong message for the roomful of students.
“You get one opportunity to get a diploma,” she said. “I want you to be present every single day. I know it's not easy, but the key is whatever your challenge is, overcome it with the support of the people like your principal, teachers and family, who care deeply about you.”
Principal Perry says by creating a safer school environment and making the curriculum more challenging he's been able to get students like Monica Moore back on track. She’s in class daily now and plans to attend college to become a social worker.
But he still has a long way to go.
Empty Desks is made possible through a grant from Open Society Institute-Baltimore: investing in solutions to Baltimore’s toughest problems.