MANHATTAN — At the East Village’s P.S. 15 just showing up to class can be a struggle for many kids.
Roughly 40 percent of the East Fourth Street school’s 160 students live in in temporary housing, and they’re often moving from shelter to shelter across the city, principal Irene Sanchez said.
Its high needs students have other issues that keep them home, as well. Some might have health issues, like asthma attacks that require medication. They might have crippling anxiety, or they simply might not have any clean clothes.
“There are a lot of different reasons why students don’t come to school,” Sanchez said. “It takes a combination of engagement and security — taking care of basic needs — to get them here.”
But in the time since P.S. 15 has made fighting chronic absenteeism an all-consuming effort they've seen dramatic results — lifting its attendance rate from 80 percent to 93 percent in just a few years, besting the citywide rate of 92 percent. They've also been taken off the state's "persistently struggling" list.
And they're not alone.
P.S. 15 is one of nearly 130 community schools currently trying to come up with inventive ways to encourage their student body to come to school on time — with the help of nonprofit partners who provide extra support to help families and students show up.
Chris Caruso, the DOE’s community schools director, said that the 130 schools in the program have been making gains across the board due to the attendance interventions and have seen a nearly 5 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism.
The nonprofit groups help turn schools into one-stop centers with on-site health, mental health and social services along with expanded hours for learning time. In the case of P.S. 15, that meant hosting weekly meetings involving teachers, school aides, the school nurse, guidance counselor and a parent coordinator — who makes house calls to personally escort some students to school.
They even have several free washing machines at school where parents can use them — and where the parent coordinator will launder a child's outfit during the school day while they borrow clean clothes.
Those involved say the intervention is crucial since students had been missing, on average, 36 days — or roughly two months of school.
“We want to motivate parents,” Sanchez said. “It’s breaking a habit [of not taking attendance seriously] and forming a new habit.”
Sanchez also offers students with stellar attendance records slots in the school’s highly-competitive summer camp.
Children can also get their teeth cleaned at school and their vision tested. For children with anxiety or attachment issues, the school now offers a “fun” small group activity first thing in the morning, like crafts, where social workers are on hand to provide emotional support and help ease the students into the day, Sanchez explained.
The school helps parents make connections with other families in their buildings who might be able to bring their kids to school and even helps with things like finding babysitters so parents don’t keep their elementary school kids home to take care of sick younger siblings.
And a recent DOE effort now includes sending school buses to transport kids from shelters to the school.
The nonprofit funding also helps to pay for enrichment programs that make the school day more fun: kids get dance and music every week, swim classes at Battery Park’s Asphalt Green, art programs, soccer and a “story pirates” residency.
At several schools coming off of state’s struggling schools lists that work with Phipps Neighborhoods social service agency — including the School of Diplomacy, a middle school in the Bronx — every student is matched with an adult in their building, who serves as their “success mentor,” explained Jeremy Kaplan, Phipps’ senior director of schools and community education.
Many of these mentors — often college students or recent grads interested in becoming teachers — push into classrooms and help work with small groups or one-on-one.
“We add hands on deck,” Kaplan said. “It’s more people to build relationships with kids and it takes some of the workload off the plate of teachers and administrators.”
Principal Sean Licata of the School of Diplomacy at the Richard R. Green Community School campus in the Northwest Bronx, explained how every morning a team from Phipps helps the school call all absent students and call them again the next morning preemptively to find out whether they’ll be coming to school.
The school also offers incentives for attending school, like trips to Chelsea Piers, Rye Playland and Great Adventure, Licata explained.
“We have a lot more fun things going on,” he added, pointing to special “guys” or “girls” nights at school, a carnival where games and popcorn makers took over the cafeteria and a basketball tournament.
“We’re letting kids be kids and giving them reasons to come to school,” Licata said.
Last year, the school ended with an 87 percent attendance rate. Now its rate is around 93 percent.
Miss New York came to the School of Diplomacy's Girls' night.
Developing community schools hasn’t been cheap: the city initially invested $52 million from a 4-year state grant to turn 45 schools with poor attendance into these social service hubs. It then devoted another $150 million to use the model to help turn around 94 academically low-performing schools in three years.
On top of that, these schools received an additional $34 million in state funds this year and will get $60 million in the following years to bolster their programs. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to develop more than 200 community schools over the next few years.
But building and sustaining strong community partnerships can be difficult, especially given potential shifts in budget and staffing, cautioned David Bloomfield, education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
“The added resources and attention are likely improving these schools," he said, "but with budget concerns and an ever-changing population of students it’s not clear that a quick or permanent turnaround is guaranteed."
Cynthia McCallister, a professor at NYU worried that the community schools model might gloss over the need for deeper education reform, especially at the high school level where, she believes, absenteeism is due to motivation or avoidance.
For her, the key is giving kids more autonomy in how they learn and gather knowledge, as well as helping low-income students view education as something “hopeful” and a a path to a better future.
“Kids don’t relate education to optimism,” McCallister said, “and that’s a big problem.”