Sunday, September 23, 2012

Attend Me . . .

Note: I work in a public elementary school. One of my primary tasks is attendance; I review which students are at school, or not, I hand out tardy slips to those who come in late, and I try to track down those who don't come in at all.

Attend. We generally use it to mean "show up", but there's a deeper meaning: to be present, to care for, to take charge. Every day part of my job is to review the attendance at our elementary school. Over time I see patterns emerge -- illnesses that sweep through the school classroom by classroom, religious holidays that collect disparate children into faithful solidarity, weather affecting only those who don't have a car. On occasion I see evidence of truancy and must call in a social worker to address the issue. Attendance is a small task, but there are larger ramifications for both safety and education.

In our school some children hardly miss a day, and are never late. I barely recognize them. Others I know by first and last name because every morning they come to the office five, ten, fifteen minutes late. As a parent and volunteer in the classroom, I can attest to a parallel trend: the same children who are late every day often are the ones who don't turn in their homework. They struggle to read and keep up with their peers. They don't have a support network that values their education.

These patterns I see, these falling lines of disappointment and failure, are not tied to race or class. Some poor families fight nearly impossible odds to get their children to school on time. Networks of cousins and aunts and friends and neighbors fill in gaps and make sure that the students are there on time and ready to learn. At home they have space to read and someone to review their work. No matter how late, or how tired, someone is there to help. Every resource available through school or grants or third-party programs are employed to make sure their children will make it. And they do.

At the same time some wealthy families whose children dress impeccably and have all the right props are allowed to stay up late watching movies and lollygag their way to school. They sleep through class. Homework is seen as an unnecessary nuisance. Their extracurricular activities are given much attention; school gets short shrift. The families have no expectations of them; they have none for themselves. Their actions have no consequence, and they have no shame in seeing me first thing, day after day, if they come in at all.

A story: last week a parent called, an hour after school started, to let us know that her (eleven or twelve year old) child would be riding a bike to school, probably leaving home soon (mom wasn't there) and would take about 45 minutes. She asked that we make sure the child called upon arrival.

An hour and a half later, the child still hadn't shown up. The school's main secretary returned from a meeting, heard the situation, and informed me that up after the 45 minutes passed I should have considered it a case of a missing child. She immediately called the district's office of Safety and Security, asking them to send an officer to the student's house. I got on the phone and started calling people on the student's contact list. Mom didn't answer, so I left a message. On the third call I reached a grandparent who told me that the student had decided not to go to school and was at home with an older sibling. We eventually spoke with the actual student to confirm the story. Mom never did call us back.

So. I totally dropped the ball. I am extremely grateful that the child wasn't kidnapped or injured. But I question why in the world this is the school's responsibility? Sure, I can understand if a child was dropped off at school and we couldn't find him. But we had no control over when the student set out from home (or didn't in this case), nor could we know the route used to get to school. Heck, mom apparently anticipated that -- she allotted 45 minutes for a ride of less than a mile. In addition, if the parent was expecting a phone call, why wasn't SHE the one to raise the alarm after her deadline had passed? Finally, if she knew her child wasn't going to school after all, shouldn't she have let us know?

There is an entire industry of blame in our country predicated on holding teachers, administrators, and schools responsible for poorly educated students. As an eyewitness to the education process I have to ask, why are parents (and students) not also held accountable?

Traditionally, schools act in loco parentis -- in place of parents. Through the years the scope of those responsibilities have grown. Even before the bell rings staff provide food, shelter, discipline, and medical care to our students. I agree with most of those additions. However, as a parent I still consider my children to be in my custody until they get to the schoolhouse door, and I believe my responsibility for them and their actions never ceases, regardless of their location or company. I require my children to not just be present in school, but to attend. Their education is not just a right, but their personal responsibility. It seems to me that some parents are forgetting that.  Ultimately the school gets blamed for their poor performance, but really it's the parents who are failing their children.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you. In the case of that "late"/"no-show" child, it was entirely parental fault.

    Schools -- teachers and caring staff -- do A LOT for kids. Occasionally, the ball is dropped, but not often. And clearly, you have seen the bigger picture for what it is -- ultimately, there are no socio-economic claims on failing in the classroom (the deck stacked against you, perhaps, but no ultimate sentence). Education begins and ends at home.