Tuesday, August 26, 2003

CPS first day: 25% no-shows


Officials cite earlier start date, hot weather as factors

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Click to view a PDF file (12k) showing a detailed chart of first-day attendence figures for CPS schools.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
About a fourth of students enrolled in Cincinnati Public Schools didn't show up on the first day of classes last week, according to numbers released by the school district Monday.

That's despite a big back-to-school campaign launched by the school district and Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools, a parent advocacy group.

"It has to make me wonder what's wrong that a quarter of the kids don't show up the first day," said Greg Loomis, a vice president of Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools. "Twenty-five percent is mind-boggling to me."

The low attendance figures come less than a week after Cincinnati was ranked in "academic emergency" - the lowest of the state's five ratings for student achievement.

Superintendent Alton Frailey last week said attendance is one of the issues the school district must address to raise student achievement.

"We're going to be focusing on attendance the entire school year because it's critically important for a number of reasons - the most important of which is that if kids aren't in school they can't be learning," said district spokeswoman Janet Walsh. "It's also an indicator on the state report card, so we're held accountable for attendance."

Of 39,784 students expected to show up for school, 30,492 made it to class, according to figures called in by each school. The rate of attendance for last year's first day was not immediately available.

In a handful of schools, fewer than half the kids showed up on the first day, while top-ranking Walnut Hills High School had 99 percent of the school population present last Thursday.

Volunteers placed about 1,000 yard signs at every school and at high-traffic areas throughout the city. They also sent notices to 166 churches to announce the first day of school in their bulletins and handed out more than 3,600 bags of free school supplies. Free public service announcements ran on the radio, and Carolyn Turner, the executive director of the parent advocacy group, appeared on WIZF-FM (100.9).

Officials and principals said several factors might have contributed to the low first-day attendance:

• School started nearly a week earlier than last year.

• School began on a Thursday instead of a Monday, like last year.

• The heat may have deterred some parents from sending their children.

Oyler Elementary principal Craig Hockenberry said some parents don't have telephones, access to computers, newspapers or television and may not have known when the first day of school was.

"In a lot of years, we started after Labor Day," he said. "That may have thrown a few off."

The heat didn't help. The temperature soared to a high of 89 last Thursday, but high humidity caused the heat index to reach 95 degrees. Just eight percent of Cincinnati schools have air conditioning.

"Some of the kids have been getting sick because it's so hot," said Hockenberry, who added that he's not making excuses for parents who didn't send kids to school.

But Hockenberry and district officials said poverty also plays a role in low attendance. They said some parents don't send their kids to school if they don't have proper clothes, lunch money or supplies.

Cincinnati schools also wrestle with parents moving several times during the year, making it difficult to contact them to alert them of the first day of school. Last year, between 150 and 200 students moved in and out of Oyler Elementary, Hockenberry said.

While 64 percent of the expected 564 Oyler students showed up last Thursday, Hockenberry said that percentage is growing daily. He said about 40 more students showed up Monday.

Cincinnati is not the only school district wrestling with low first-day attendance. New Orleans public schools launched a massive back-to-school campaign before school started last week. That's because about 20,000 students - or about a third of the student body - didn't show up the year before on the first day. This year, more than 54,000 showed up of the 61,000 who were supposed to be there on day one.

Loomis said community members and the media could do more in Cincinnati to promote the first day of school here, but the blame does not rest with them.

"The burden of responsibility is on parents and on guardians," he said.

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E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com




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