Bottom Line is kids graduate
By James Alan Fox
August 28, 2006

Cooler temperatures, vanishing playoff hopes for Sox fans, and circulars from Officemax and Staples--together these signal that school is around the corner.

As teachers and administrators spend the final days of summer finishing lesson plans and fine-tuning student schedules, there’s a troublesome concern ahead: What to do with youngsters who fail to return to school or are chronically absent? School may be one of the great delinquency prevention measures, but only if at-risk youngsters show up. For Boston’s traditional (open-admission) high schools, for example, on average one in six students is absent on any given day.

The “No Child Left Behind” federal program focuses not only on raising test scores, but on increasing attendance rates as well. No child left outside the building--literally, as the Boston School Department (BSD) recently altered its “no admittance policy” for latecomers.

The BSD has done more than change course on tardiness, issuing a 31-page Interim Superintendent’s Circular on Attendance Procedures for the 2006-2007 academic year. The document outlines an exhaustively comprehensive set of policies and procedures for attendance, so detailed that more than a diploma may be needed to fathom all of it.

Highlights of administrative-process-gone-wild include establishing an Attendance Review Team within every school; requiring teachers to take attendance in every class period; directing homeroom teachers to telephone parents of absent students and write letters home in cases involving repeated absences; reviewing chronic cases through the Student Support Team to craft an intervention plan; involving Supervisors of Attendance (also known as “truant officers”) if all else fails; etc., etc., etc. Odds are that by October, the rate of non-compliance with the new regs will overtake the rate of student absenteeism.

School sanctions for poor attendance - including detention, extra homework, forced servitude with janitorial staff, and lost sports and prom privileges--don’t really do much for a youngster who has lost interest in school. The approach is heavy on the stick but light on the carrot. Sure, the policy manual does “suggest” incentives for punctuality and attendance---student prizes such as T-shirts and movie passes or class rewards such as pizza parties and field trips. But we’ll see how often the suggestion is followed.

Forget token inducements, all of which imply that knowledge is less a reward than a hot slice of pepperoni or a “Stop Skippin’ ” T-shirt. We need to make school itself intrinsically rewarding, even for the marginal students. Unfortunately, the back to basics and teaching to the MCAS movement has forced elimination of many of the electives and extracurricular activities that made school stimulating and satisfying for the non-geeks.

More important, we need to help students see education as a pathway to the American Dream, which for many at-risk youngsters looks like a nightmare. The hard truth is that attending (and graduating) high school is only half the battle. Real opportunity these days requires a college education, a goal that appears far beyond the reach for many school children.

One of the more encouraging initiatives, however, is literally within sight for many Boston high-schoolers. Housed in Jamaica Plain, just down the block from English High, is an outstanding program helping at-risk Boston students get into college and stay enrolled.

Bottom Line, funded through private donations and grants, each year counsels hundreds of children from immigrant or poor families, assisting them with the college search, the daunting application and financial aid processes, as well as the adjustment to college life.

Achieving a remarkable college acceptance rate of 98 percent, Bottom Line is only limited by its own bottom line of fund-raising. Moreover, it demonstrates how creative thinking outperforms rules and regulations in keeping students in school.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at