District addresses attendance problem

ROCHESTER — One of the most important things the entire community can do for the children of the Rochester City School District is help ensure they are in school.

But chronic absences, which district officials have focused on over past few years, continued to plague the district during the first week of school, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said in a Sept. 4 statement. About 76 percent of students attended on the first day of school on Sept. 2, compared to 83.3 percent last year, according to the statement.

"Students who miss even two days a month are at grave risk of failure. It’s that simple," Vargas stated. "Our district has invested heavily in more instructional time, more engagement activities and more social (and) emotional support, but none of this will help our students unless they attend school."

Vargas had also outlined the district’s efforts to improve attendance during the Aug. 25 "State of Our Schools" address at Edison Tech High School, including attendance blitzes where staff and volunteers go door to door to find out why children are not in school. And this is not a truancy problem, he emphasized, noting that many of the children in question are in the elementary schools. Since the effort to improve attendance began, chronic absence among elementary-school-age students has dropped 18 percent.

His goal is a 95 percent attendance rate for all students.

Families must do their part to continue the upward trend, Vargas said, by following what he called the ABCs and making sure their children: attend school every day, behave properly and complete work sent home.

"We don’t view that (attendance) as a child issue," he said. "We view it as a family issue."

School Board President Van White said that the streets of the community are where you will see the measure of progress in such efforts begun in the four years since Vargas became superintendent.

"If our students are on the streets and not in our schools, we can’t make progress," he said.

In addition to addressing that fundamental issue since coming on board, Vargas said that the additional instruction time added to many of the district’s schools as well as increasing extracurricular opportunities for students are making a difference. This year’s graduation rate is expected to increase a couple of points to 45.5 percent, he said.

"The State of Our Schools is a story of collaboration to improve opportunities for our students," he said. "We have no time to lose is not just a slogan. … Our children may be poor but they are able and capable to learn."

That collaboration includes such partners as the University of Rochester, which begins its "unprecedented" experiment in transforming East High School, which had graduation rates of less than 40 percent, and less than 10 percent for special-education students, Vargas said. Other partners include Monroe Community College, which helped restore Edison as a career and technical school, and Wegmans, which has offered training to the district in customer service so administrators and schools’ staffs respond with more efficiency and immediacy to parents’ needs and concerns, he explained.

The school board also will begin to address the Common Core assessments, which show a 5 percent districtwide rate of proficiency, he said. The district had one of the highest rates of families who opted out during testing last spring, he added. The board will seek to provide families with more information about the assessments, such as the state’s decision to switch testing companies.

"We will be a success story … by treating every child like our own," Vargas said.

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