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Cellphone App Targets Truancy With Real-Time Texts From Teachers to Parents

By Amy Zimmer | February 25, 2014 6:19am
 A new app aims to combat absenteeism in schools.
A new app aims to combat absenteeism in schools.
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MANHATTAN — Absenteeism is one of the strongest predictors of whether a student will graduate from high school — but roughly 20 percent of New York City school kids miss a month of elementary school each year due to absenteeism, statistics show.

That's why two tech entrepreneurs have launched new software that's been used in a bid to tamp down truancy in five city schools so far — with a little help from the students' families.

The software, Kinvolved, which can be used by teachers on a laptop, desktop, or tablet, is the brainchild of Miriam Altman and Alexandra Meis — who met at New York University's Wagner Graduate School for Public Service. The duo wanted to make an easy way for teachers to contact parents in real time when children are late or absent from school.

 Miriam Altman (left) and Alexandra Meis founded Kinvolved as a way to let teachers report student lateness or absenteeism to parents in real time. The duo are also focusing on behavior issues and grades.
Miriam Altman (left) and Alexandra Meis founded Kinvolved as a way to let teachers report student lateness or absenteeism to parents in real time. The duo are also focusing on behavior issues and grades.
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Parents only need a basic phone with text message capabilities to receive information. They can also access data online by logging into their personalized online portal.

“I found the best way to improve attendance was to work with parents,” said Altman, who as a high school teacher in Hells Kitchen through Teach for America saw parents often had no clue about a child’s absences until weeks later when attending teacher conferences.

“Parents want the text since, God forbid, their child didn't make it to school, when they usually do,” Meis said. “Recently we had a principal tell us that a father down in Central America received an SMS that his child was late. This prompted him to be involved even from afar.”

During a seven-month Kinvolved pilot program last year at the Ralph Bunche elementary school in Harlem, attendance rates went up 5 percent, Altman and Meis found.

The software is now in place at three New York City public schools and at the Citizen Schools' extended day learning program in East Harlem — and will soon be used by the Children’s Aid Society’s “success mentors” posted in 25 schools across the city in an effort to tackle truancy.

Kinvolved targets high-need, low-income communities using technology that is almost universal: cellphones. The creators were sensitive to the digital divide among public school parents, but found that an estimated 91 percent of people of all income levels have cellphones.

Besides attendance, Kinvolved is also developing ways for teachers to connect with parents as soon as problems arise with behavior and grades, organizers said. By sixth grade, if a student is having issues with two of the categories of truancy, behavior or grades, their likelihood of graduating plummets by 15 to 20 percent, a Johns Hopkins University study found.

Kinvolved's "simple but effective" tool is helping "make attendance a critical part of the education conversation," said Leslie Leggett, director of alumni affairs for Teach For America in New York, which partnered with the company on a successful $20,000 Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

"It immediately opens lines of communication between schools and guardians, building structures that bring everyone into a conversation about the student’s academic participation and success," Leggett said.

Meis and Altman got their company off the ground by winning various competitions, including $50,000 from an NYU entrepreneurs challenge, and are now being incubated at the Blue Ridge Foundation's Cobble Hill space.  Their platform is free for individual teachers who request it, but carries an undisclosed fee for schools that use the service.

The duo hopes to "rapidly" expand in New York City's public and charter schools by applying to become an approved vendor through the city's Department of Education. Their pilot programs were allowed because small-scale projects don't require DOE approval, they said.

Tracking attendance in the public schools has been a slippery process, as evidenced by the inaccurate figures reported during recent snowstorms.

Kinvolved's approach represents a "seismic shift in DOE operations and culture," said Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center education professor David Bloomfield, noting that schools report their attendance figures to the DOE often late in the day, about 10 a.m.

"The DOE sees attendance more as a funding stream than an instructional strategy," he said, adding that the emphasis on parent involvement and parent information was important. "That's often the missing link in terms of getting kids to regularly attend school on time."