EAST HARLEM — Last December, P.S. 50 had an absentee rate of nearly 25 percent.
The school at 433 East 100th St. was placed in a special program for low-performing schools. The principal was removed, and Ester Quinones came in to right the ship.
By the end of the year, the absentee rate had climbed from 77 percent to 89.6 percent. On a few occasions the school — where most students qualify for free lunch, about a third are special needs, and many live in homeless shelters — was up to 95 percent, Quinones said.
Part of what led to the 1-in-4 absentee rate was a lack of reasons for kids to want to come to school, Quinones said. Before she took over, the only activities offered were swimming lessons, which teachers were not required to take students to, and a gym class taught by an uncertified teacher, she said.
Now each grade has an activity like soccer, swimming, ballroom dancing or working in their brand-new garden.
As she enters her first full year in charge, the new principal is trying to create a strong sense of school pride and build on last spring’s success.
What was it like coming in during the middle of the year?
I looked at the school like it was a new year, respecting what is already in place but building off of it. We did have a solid group of people who are here in the best interest of the school and I was able to quickly build relationships with these people because they were going to give me the insight of the school culture.
How did you address the low attendance?
When I got here, the attendance wasn’t being scanned until about 11. So if it’s 8 o'clock, you don’t contact the home until 11 because you don’t have the list. Three hours is a long time, a lot can happen. We have a policy now where the attendance must be scanned within half an hour of the start of the day.
Now when children are absent or children are late, we immediately contact the home, we backpack a letter to the family and we are constantly following up. We have a way of identifying the chronic lateness and absences and, with those kids, we have targeted plans.
One of the biggest changes you made was introducing activities in all grade levels. What motivated the change?
When I got here, there were no activities for the students. One of the reasons we thought it was really important to have these activities for the kids is because we are feeding out of five homeless shelters and attendance is an issue. We feel that if they have an activity to look forward to, they will come to the school.
So right now I am opening up the school at 7:30 a.m. even though they don’t have school until 8:20 a.m. so they have that social time. We have a basketball club. We have an independent reading club, so that the kids are looking forward to being in school in a fun way and the attendance will go up. And we have seen the attendance go up.
Now that you are in your first full year, what are your goals moving forward?
The major goal right now is going to be to look at the data. We are looking at attendance data. We are looking at the behavioral data. We are looking at our testing data.
After we find out what the trends are, we are going to start doing some intervention … where we have teams of people that are going to target whatever trends we find. So basically the goal is to start looking deeper at the data.