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First-Day Jitters: Student No-Shows Vex Districts

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Each year, in school districts across the country, hundreds or even thousands of students fail to show up on the first day of the new school year.

Family vacations, overseas travel, summer employment, illness, and just plain forgetfulness keep students out on what many agree is a crucial day of the academic year.

This year, some of those districts have turned to a variety of strategies to lure their students in.

  • In Chicago, families received a phone call, a postcard, or a message from their clergyman.
  • In Pinellas County, Fla., reminders came in the form of notices added to utility bills.
  • And in Oakland, Calif., the school system sought help from the business community to get the word out.

The matter is of great importance, educators say, because missing the first day of the school year can begin for students a precarious slide that leads to poor academic performance and chronic truancy.

The absences also mean extra paperwork and other headaches for administrators, and can potentially cost large districts millions of dollars in lost state funding.

For some of those districts, absences on the first day of school are as much a part of the back-to-school landscape as students' new clothes.

In Pinellas County, for example, only 97,000 of the district's roughly 104,000 students answered "present" on Aug. 21.

Officials in the Gulf Coast district had sought to ease the first-day attendance problems by blanketing the community with information about the importance of the day.

"Any student who rode a bus [last year] received a postcard in the mail," said Ron F. Stone, a district spokesman. "The district even got the power company to put notices in utility statements."

Mr. Stone said the measures were part of a larger campaign that involved local newspapers, cable television, and radio stations. The district recently adopted a policy that would exempt students with perfect attendance from taking final exams.

The hope, Mr. Stone said, was to encourage students to return.

'Year-Round Problem'

In the 650,000-student Los Angeles district, the problems are compounded because a third of the schools operate year round.

"This isn't just a first-of-the-year problem," said Nathana Schooler, the district's coordinator for pupil services and attendance. "It's a year-round problem, because students are coming back to school all of the time."

Ms. Schooler said the district, like others, uses postcard notifications and the news media to get the word out. In addition, Los Angeles has an attendance hot line.

People who see children who should be in school can call a toll-free number, and the district will send a community representative or an attendance counselor to the students' homes.

Even with such a concerted effort, Ms. Schooler said, surprises always creep up.

"One year a lot of kids missed the first day and we couldn't figure out why, only to find that we started school before their welfare checks had arrived," she said. "The parents kept them out to buy school clothes first."

The Chicago public schools have adopted one of the most comprehensive back-to-school plans in the nation.

"Each year, significant numbers of students are absent during the first few weeks of school," Gery Chico, the president of the 417,000-student district's reform school board, said in a statement. "This seriously hurts a student's ability to begin school on firm academic ground."

The problem also costs the district money. Last year the district lost $46 million in state aid because of student truancy, Mr. Chico said.

This year, the district launched a campaign that blitzed the city with 500,000 fliers, 50,000 posters, 250,000 calls from automated phone banks to area households, and public service announcements on television and radio.

Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, sent letters to members of local school councils, aldermen, community organizations, and other agencies asking for their involvement in the campaign. More than 400 religious leaders were asked to include back-to-school messages in their church services.

Summer employees with the city received a flier in their paychecks.

"We want parents and students to have as much information as possible to get the school year off to a smooth start," Lynn St. James, a district spokeswoman, said in a statement.

In Oakland, Calif., educators and community leaders have joined together in an effort to decrease first-day absences in the 51,600-student system. The month-long effort began in early August, with the goal of increasing attendance on the fifth day of the school year at elementary schools from 94 percent to 98 percent, and overall attendance to 96 percent, from 95 percent.

Mayor Elihu Harris told the San Francisco Examiner early last month, "When we say 'Oakland goes back to school,' we mean just that."

Few Problems

Though the first-day absenteeism isn't limited to large urban districts, educators in some smaller districts say they don't have a problem at all.

"We have our highest enrollment on the first day and then it declines," said Mike Bowman, a spokesman for the 4,200-student Albany County public schools in Laramie, Wyo.

Ron Blakely, the superintendent of the 1,100-student Illinois School District 170 in Deer Creek-Mackinaw, said involving parents in the school-registration process helps his district avoid absenteeism. The district averaged a 96 percent attendance rate during the 1995-96 school year.

"Parents have to come to school and register their students [and] pay fees," Mr. Blakely said. "They get a packet in the mail in the summer, so they know they have to get in here and register before school starts."

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