Superintendent William Hite and local religious leaders said Thursday that a concerted effort by the School District and community members helped school attendance to increase by 3 percent last year.
According to Hite, 4,000 more children are attending school at least 95 percent of the time, adding 20,000 days to school attendance and decreasing chronic absence by 10 percent.
Research shows that students who are chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent of school days, are at risk for literacy problems and academic difficulties, which can lead to dropping out of school in later years.
“Nothing is more important than children attending school,” Hite said. “When children attend school, literacy rates increase and more children are ready for a career or college.”
The District collaborated with Harvard University during the 2014-15 school year to create a program to increase attendance. Through the program, parents were sent letters informing them of their child’s attendance in comparison with their classmates' attendance, so parents could gauge the severity of their child’s absenteeism.
Hite said he knew the letters worked, because parents “stopped [him] on the street.” Some were offended by the letters or unaware of the importance of their child’s attendance, whether the absences had been excused or unexcused. Nevertheless, Hite said, he made the most of every interaction.
“It was an opportunity to explain the importance of attendance,” he said, “particularly when children are learning to read.”
Local religious leaders also played a role in the increase by stressing the importance of attendance and literacy to their congregations. About 10 faith-based leaders attended a news conference this week to show their support.
“The faith-based community of Philadelphia stands 100 percent behind Superintendent Hite and the School District’s plan to increase attendance throughout the city,” said the Rev. James Buck of Berean Baptist Church. “We will be emphasizing the importance of school opening on Sept. 7, and we will encourage students and parents to be ready for another year.”
Hite revealed plans for the coming school year to continue the District’s attendance progress, including an expansion of the White House’s mentoring initiative called My Brother’s Keeper and continuing to work with READ! by 4th, a campaign to increase literacy among young students.
“It’s one of these things that when you focus and get the entire community focused on it,” Hite said, “then it changes the outcome.”