For the first time since the 2003-2004 school year the attendance at Woodlawn High School has risen above the 90 percent mark. With a grant from Maryland Safe and Supportive Schools (MSD3), school officials have been able to move the student body closer to their goal of perfect attendance, higher GPAs and violence-free school days. “In the first month of school we had over 400 students with perfect attendance that we were able to recognize- and that’s perfect attendance with less than three tardies to school,” said Philip Popielski, assistant principle of Woodlawn High School.

“Every month we recognize those individual monthly students for their attendance and we are able to give them incentives for that. The incentives are small things, but for those kids, they’re big things- Woodlawn pencils, Woodlawn pens, and students who had perfect attendance and straight A’s got Woodlawn backpacks.” Chronic absence is defined by a student missing either 10 percent of the entire academic year or more than a month of school at any time. Chronic absence rates include all absences regardless of the reason because whether it’s a doctor’s appointment or a valid family emergency, the student is not at a desk learning.

Maryland is one of only six states in the country that keeps close track of every student with chronic absences, a problem that affects as many as 7.5 million students a year nationwide, according to the Importance of Being in School, a report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools, done by the Johns Hopkins School of Education. The problem of chronic absenteeism is often overlooked by school officials in other states where only graduation rates and overall attendance averages are used to gauge school-wide performance.

According to the report, in Maryland alone, as many as 85,188 students, or 11 percent of all enrolled pupils, were chronically absent from the classroom in the 2010-2011 school year. That number increased significantly for Baltimore City schools last year, where 25 percent, or 200,000 students struggled with attendance and put themselves at greater risk of dropping out before graduation. With help from the MSD3 federal grant program, sponsored, in part, by Sheppard Pratt Hospital and Johns Hopkins University, Woodlawn High was able to install new equipment to record attendance and create a stronger network of support for every pupil.

“We’ve done a better job of tracking through data- tracking when kids are absent, why they’re absent, and finding them resources to help them if they need them to be in school,” said Popielski, recognizing that some students are tardy or absent because they have stressful situations outside of the classroom.

Through the SWIPE program, students who were habitually absent began to get phone calls and emails home two to three times a week both by an automated system and when possible, live attendance secretaries.

“With the SWIPE system, if a person doesn’t show up to school, they will call your house and let your parents know,” said 16-year-old Jeffrey Wimms, a junior at Woodlawn. Wimms admits that he struggled with his own attendance before the changes at his school took place because he simply didn’t like to go. His perspective didn’t change until his father became more aware of the issue and its underlying causes. “My father always tells me that being in attendance and being on time can get you to do better things in everything- school and in sports,” said Wimms, who was more interested in athletics than books. “He said ‘if you want to go far in sports, you have to be there every day- you have to treat that like school- if you want to go far in your education, you have to be there every day.” Today, Wimms has perfect attendance, and he’s encouraging his young brother, freshman Andrew Wimms, to follow in his footsteps.

“I’ve been telling him to come to school and he should get perfect attendance fourth quarter because I’ve been on his back about it.” The brothers are just one example of the how attitudes towards attendance have changed in just one year. The changes will be seen as routine procedure for freshman coming into Woodlawn next year.

“The seniors have seen the change and they tell the freshman all the time ‘when we started as freshman they didn’t have this same type of system to keep track of you- but its better because they care,” said Popielski. “We still have a ways to go but we’ve made great strides.”

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer