Moving America Forward

Notes From the Field: Miriam Altman on School Absenteeism

March 23, 2017
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Notes From the Field: Miriam Altman on School Absenteeism
One area of focus for the South Bronx Rising Together is ensuring that neighborhood kids are college and career ready. Courtesy of South Bronx Rising Together
A first-person account on the work being done to keep kids in school in the poorest congressional district in the nation.

One hot afternoon in late August, I spotted a familiar face as I exited the Prospect Avenue subway station in New York City’s South Bronx. It was Tonya, one of my former students. She was holding the hand of a young girl dressed in an orange school uniform.

Bright and focused on earning her high school diploma, Tonya’s plans to go to college changed when she became pregnant during her senior year with Destiny, the girl whose hand she held. After a three month hiatus from school, Tonya graduated, and went on to have two more children — all by the age of 22. As a single mother, she worked odd jobs and collected food stamps to make ends meet.

I know first hand that Tonya’s story is not uncommon where she lives in Community District 3.  I am the cofounder of Kinvolved, a company that is working in her community to increase graduation rates by fighting school absenteeism.

Tonya lives in the poorest congressional district in the country, where about 37 percent of residents live in poverty and nearly 50 percent of residents earn less than a high school degree. By targeting the specific challenges facing the area’s youth, there’s hope to dramatically alter their futures.

South Bronx Rising Together is a group of neighborhood stakeholders working to improve the quality of life of neighborhood residents, in part, by ensuring that kids are college and career ready. Focused on elevating literacy rates, the organization discovered that student absenteeism is the main cause of lower-than-average scores. SBRT uses Collective Action Networks (CANs) made up of families, educators, business leaders, service providers and others to combat absenteeism.

Research proves chronic absence patterns can predict students’ graduation as early as sixth grade. New York City schools have one of the highest chronic absence rates in the country; public schools in Community District 3 have some of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the city: 36.6 percent of preK-12 students miss a month or more of school each year.

As SBRT analyzed absentee data, my colleagues and I at Kinvolved were working to help schools address absenteeism. We developed an app — KiNVO — that schools use to track attendance and to send text messages to families so they know whether or not their children are in class in real time. More than 100,000 stakeholders at 90 preK-12 schools in New York City benefit from KiNVO. At schools using the app, attendance rates improved 13 times that of an average NYC school.

As a CAN participant, my efforts focus on supporting the 60 schools in Community District 3. My CAN colleagues and I recruit schools in the neighborhood to be “All-In” schools, meaning they have committed to joining the fight against chronic absenteeism. By the end of the school year, there will be 30 “All-In” schools that participate in SBRT-sponsored events, webinars and meetings to exchange best practices to elevate attendance.

In part, as a result of these efforts, “All-In” schools that had regular attendance meetings and staff dedicated to attendance, experienced a drop in absenteeism between 5.7 percent and 10.3 percent from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year.

According to SBRT co-directors Elizabeth Clay-Roy and Abe Fernandez, the organization wants its model and learnings to be open sourced. That way, improvement in school attendance will extend beyond Community District 3 in the South Bronx to the entire country.

Looking back, I have realized that I learned about SBRT and its focus on chronic absenteeism just before my reunion with Tonya and her daughter Destiny.  That day, as we parted ways, I hugged Tonya goodbye and felt Destiny’s small arms hugging my knees. I looked down at her eager smile and bright eyes and wished her a wonderful school year.

I believe that through the work of South Bronx Rising Together and also Kinvolved’s progress in fighting chronic absenteeism, we’re going to help Destiny and her peers achieve a future that hasn’t been as easily attained for her mother.

Miriam Altman is the chief executive officer and cofounder of Kinvolved.

Correction: The original version of this post misidentified Miriam Altman in the second photo. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

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