What Can Milwaukee Learn From Other Cities About Getting Kids To Class?

May 10, 2016

This week, WUWM's "Getting There" series explores school attendance around Milwaukee. Today, we examine what other cities have tried to get students in their seats. 

The year was 2011. The truancy rate in New York City public schools had hit 20 percent

District leaders decided to try something new and simple: calling the kids who weren’t showing up.

They called their campaign "WakeUp! NYC." Students who had missed at least 10 days of class were signed up to receive daily voicemail messages. But rather than using familiar voices like a teacher, they enlisted the help of big names that kids would recognize, such as NBA great Magic Johnson, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and chart-topping singer Trey Songz.

The program started with 6,500 students in targeted schools. After just one semester, the number of repeat truants had dropped by up to 25 percent in some schools. Leaders called it a success.

“There’s a really big shift in mindset,” explains Attendance Works’ associate director Cecelia Leong. “It’s moving away from a very punitive approach, which often typifies a truancy response.”

Leong says the key is to keep things positive.

READ: 'Getting There': Why Do Milwaukee Students Miss School?

Here’s an example: Richards Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia.

Six years ago, Richards’ test scores were low – in the 70 percent range. Attendance was spotty, too. To turn things around, school administrators began focusing on school climate.

Reporter Martha Dalton covers Richards and other Atlanta schools for public radio station WABE. She says the school’s turnaround started with a new discipline program, and just snowballed from there.

“Engaging staff, making the school climate a place where kids would want to come every day,” Dalton lists. “And what I saw was kids wanted to be there. They genuinely wanted to be at school.”

READ: WABE reports on improved attendance at Richards Middle School

Richards’ attendance jumped to 99 percent this past January. The school climate changes that helped boost the numbers: helping teachers think outside the box when it comes to lesson planning, and encouraging a spirit of teamwork throughout the building. Another side effect: test scores jumped to 90 percent.

Cecilia Leong says schools struggling with attendance in Milwaukee and elsewhere could take cues from Richards’ approach, or even those surprise phone calls New York tried.

Leong says when it comes to kids, you have to keep things light. 

“Students are less likely to show up when they don’t feel welcome in school,” she adds. “We don’t want to punish a child for not being in school, therefore making them feel negative and averse to going to school. [We] want to trigger some kind of positive response.”

Over the years, officials here have tried different tactics to reduce truancy, some punitive.

Back in the 1980s, the state tied attendance to welfare benefits. The program was called Learnfare. If kids missed more than two days of school without an excuse, the state reduced or even suspended the family’s benefits.

Milwaukee county officials have threatened parents with fines and tickets, even criminal charges. What the city hasn’t yet found is something that sticks.

But MPS continues trying. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll visit some of its initiatives to get students back in their seats.