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Published in Print: September 3, 2003, as Districts Exhort Students to Attend On First Day

Districts Exhort Students to Attend On First Day

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With academic performance and big money at stake, several urban districts this fall are making concerted new pushes to get more students to show up on the first day of school.

In Birmingham, Ala., district leaders enlisted area clergy to preach the gospel of good attendance. In New Orleans, students were promised the chance to win professional-football tickets if they attended classes on opening day— and prosecution as truants if they didn't.

Across the country, more employers are giving parents the morning off to take their children to school on the first day, and more district administrators are making sure that students have the clothes, supplies, and immunizations they need to start the school year on time.

"There is more activity, and it's more comprehensive," said Evie Herrmann, the executive director of the First Day Foundation, a Bennington, Vt.-based group that encourages communities to hold special events around the first day of school as a way to promote parental involvement.

In many cities, past opening days have left much room for improvement. Nearly 30 percent of the students in New Orleans' public schools were no-shows on the first day of school last year. In St. Louis, the rate was 25 percent, but at some schools, more than half the students were absent.

It's a costly tradition, because states typically divvy up money based on districts' attendance figures from the first couple of months of the school year. Consider Birmingham, where 6,000 of the district's 36,000 students missed the first day last year. That cost $780,000, said Michaelle Chapman, a spokeswoman for the district.

Perception of 'Chaos'

This year, the Alabama district had local ministers spread the word that missing school hurts the district, both academically and financially. In Sunday sermons and in radio announcements, pastors urged parents to send their children to school. And on opening day on Aug. 18, members of the clergy stationed themselves at schools to greet them.

"Ministers are a very powerful force in the community, and families do listen to what their ministers say," said Ms. Chapman. She added that, though it's too early to tell exactly how well the strategy worked, initial figures suggest improvement.

District leaders attribute first-day absenteeism to many factors. In places where school now begins before Labor Day, some families still haven't adjusted to the earlier start. And where student mobility is high, many parents often aren't sure which schools their children should attend.

Focus groups in St. Louis this summer showed that many families see the first days of school as a waste of time. "There seems to be a perception by a great number of parents that chaos reigns, and they want to wait until things calm down, and then send them," said Rita Gail Johnson, who is planning ways to improve first-day attendance in the 40,000-student district.

St. Louis moved the start of school this year from late August to Sept. 8. District leaders had all principals draft attendance plans tailored to their schools. At least one middle school held an event so that students could get whatever shots they needed, since immunization rules often are an issue in the middle grades.

St. Louis also has sent letters translated into six languages to students' homes, and it has volunteers ready to canvas neighborhoods the weekend before school starts to issue last-minute reminders. "What we're trying to do is get 100 percent attendance; we're not looking for anything less than that," she said. "Whether that happens remains to be seen."

Vol. 23, Issue 1, Page 19

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