KINGSTON – School attendance plays a powerful role in long-term student success. In fact, according to the US Department of Education, irregular attendance can be a better predictor of whether students will drop out of school before graduation than test scores.
“Attendance is so important,” said Dr. Paul Padalino, Superintendent at Kingston City School District. “This is especially true for children in early grades who can quickly fall behind in building fundamental literacy skills. This learning loss can have a snowball effect that impacts future learning.”
At John F. Kennedy Elementary School (JFK), school administrators have been focusing on ways to improve attendance since 2018. The efforts are even more important post-pandemic where many schools across the country have seen chronic absenteeism rise. Even though the pandemic has entered a new phase and the Centers for Disease Control has relaxed quarantine requirements, many school districts are still seeing pockets of chronic absenteeism and are once again taking a closer look at their attendance rates and devising strategies to encourage students to attend school.
Paula Bugbee, social worker at JFK, noticed that student attendance was down primarily for students living in two apartment complexes located within a half mile from the school, which means they are considered walkers. Bugbee brought this to the attention of the school principal, Melissa Jamieson, to brainstorm ideas of how to address the situation, such as offering some creative rewards to students. This helped, but wasn’t enough.
After some further investigation, Jamieson and Bugbee discovered that part of the problem was that some students have to cross a busy four-lane highway before getting to school. The city’s crossing guard that had helped children cross the highway prior to the onset of COVID, is no longer stationed there. They learned that during inclement weather, many parents find the trek too dangerous and therefore choose to keep their children at home.
Knowing the deterrent, Jamieson and Bugbee decided to step up their efforts—quite literally. Now every Monday and Friday (days where absenteeism was noted as the highest), Bugbee, Jamieson, and a group of teachers walk to Rondout Gardens and Springbrook Village to pick up students in what they call the “Walking School Bus.” They gather all the students in a group and walk to school together, and at the end of the day they walk them home again. At the busy intersection, City of Kingston police are also on hand to assist with traffic control.
On their way to school, teachers hold discussions with each student. “The social and emotional well-being of our students plays a significant role in negating patterns of absenteeism,” said Bugbee. “If they feel good, they will also view school as a good place to be.”
“Parents really appreciate it and say their children are excited to go to school,” says Jamieson. Helping ignite that excitement, a member of the staff dresses up as a traffic cone to lead the walking caravan to school, which is not only fun for the students, but also ensures the group of walkers is noticeable from a distance. “Kids will often compete over who gets to hold the hand of the traffic cone,” she said, smiling. “It truly takes a village.”
Since this initiative started in October, they say they’ve seen a steady increase in attendance from this group of students.