Thursday, April 07, 2011

We Can't Help You If You're Not Here

I wish that this article from WNYC about New York's large (and possibly growing) drop-out population had been more detailed, and that it had addressed the problem it discusses more deeply. The issue, as I see it, is not only school drop-outs; rather, it's also the difficulty of working with kids who only pop into school once or twice a week. Chronic absenteeism that doesn't quite reach the definition of truancy is one of the biggest challenges we face as urban teachers.

My school stresses the importance of trying to get these kids into school regularly and then catching them up as quickly as possible. Fine advice, but for children and families who have not internalized the urgency that the situation entails, anything we can do as teachers feels like a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. These are not children with chronic health problems unless you count those vague "stomachaches," "cramps," and "headaches" that some of them seem to always have. Children malingering has been a problem for all of history, of course, but for kids who already desperately need to be in school, the problem magnifies. And calling home doesn't always solve the problem because, I've found, in many cases, the parent(s) know that the child isn't in school. In some cases, the parent(s) have kept the child home to babysit, care for a sick relative, or just chill at the child's request. Add on top of that that many of these children already struggle (perhaps because of years of absenteeism?) and you're talking a perfect storm as far as grades, credit accumulation, and, you know, learning.

Sometimes I feel like, between the kids who can't manage to show up and the kids who show up every day but consistently do nothing, maybe only half of my students are actually learning most or all of what they should be. And I'm not sure how any of us can be held responsible for that. It's this kind of problem that makes me cringe a little at posts like this that stress the "responsibilities" and "professionalism" of teachers. I'm responsible and professional, but is it really my job to teach a fellow adult that their child needs to come to school regularly?
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