Attendance rising at Philly schools



School attendance is up in Philadelphia, at least according to the school district’s preferred metric.

About 4,000 more Philadelphia students attended school 95 percent of the time last year, the district said Thursday.

During the 2015-16 school year, 42 percent of district students attended school 95 percent of the time. That’s up 3 percentage points from 2014-15 and 4 percentage points from 2013-14.

“Nothing is more critical than our young children attending school,” said Superintendent William Hite. “When children attend school, they learn to read.”

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An array of research — including at least one study conducted in Philadelphia — shows strong ties between school attendance and student outcomes. Most states and districts track a statistic known as “average daily attendance,” which calculates the total number of students against the total number of school days. Under Hite, the district has focused instead on students reaching the 95 percent threshold. The superintendent believes that figure does a better job showing how many students miss a significant chunk of the school year.

“Ninety percent [average daily attendance] sounds great, but that could mean three-quarters of your children have missed 15 or 20 days of school,” said Hite.

The district attributed its success to a more aggressive outreach campaign started two years ago. Working in conjunction with Harvard University, the district sent letters to parents indicating how much school their children had missed. Hite likened it to receiving an electric bill that compares a homeowner’s consumption with that of the neighbors.

Parents were “in some cases offended by the letter, but it was an opportunity to explain the importance of attendance, particularly when students are learning to read,” said Hite.

The district also called home after every student absence. After five absences, families received a letter, home visit, or both, Hite said.

“We wanted to make sure we were informing parents of the advantages of good attendance,” he said.

Attendance is lowest in high school, district officials said, with 12th-graders being least likely to attend school 95 percent of the time. Among students in the lower grades, kindergartners have the poorest attendance statistics.

“It’s very hard to teach children to read and do math if they’re not present,” Hite said.

The district also announced that the number of students deemed chronically absent has fallen 10 percent over the last two years.

Teachers returned to district classrooms on Thursday. Students arrive for the first day of school on  Wednesday.

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