Absent students get wakeup calls

Effort underway to reduce truancy

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / March 9, 2011

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About 500 chronically tardy students at B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River got unexpected early morning phone calls from their principal, who had a straightforward message: Wake up and get ready for class.

And the Boston Public Schools are in the beginning stages of a plan to direct recorded phone messages from celebrities to students who persistently show up late for school, or do not come at all.

School districts throughout the country are trying to bring truants and tardy students back to school before they fall too far behind. In Anaheim, Calif., schools are using a GPS-monitoring system to keep tabs on students with four or more unexcused absences. And New York City launched a “Wake Up! NYC’’ campaign last month using recorded wake-up messages from celebrities such as Magic Johnson and R&B singer Trey Songz.

“As simple as it is, you can’t educate an empty chair,’’ explained Ross Thibault, vice principal of Durfee High.

Lynn Bye, an editor of “Truancy Prevention and Intervention: A Practical Guide,’’ praised the wake-up calls, saying they reinforce the importance of school.

“That’s a powerful thing,’’ said Bye, an associate professor of social work at the University of Minnesota Duluth. A key to a successful intervention program, she said, is the relationship between the student and the adult emphasizing the classroom.

Nicole DaSilva said the relationship she builds with students at East Boston High School is the reason her 6 a.m. calls are answered. DaSilva is the program coordinator for the East Boston YMCA’s Graduate on Time Initiative and makes up to 45 calls a week to students with shoddy attendance records.

“Sometimes, it’s two rings and it goes into voicemail,’’ she said. “And some kids that I have a consistent relationship with, they’ll say: ‘All right, Nicole, I’m getting up now.’ ’’

Durfee High administrators said they do not rely solely on automated calls to get students’ attention. Administrators and teachers knock on doors, too, hoping their bond with students will motivate the teens to come to school. “We’re looking to get whatever hooks the students,’’ Thibault said.

The goal this year is to have 95 percent of Durfee High’s 2,400 students in class before the first bell rings. The school had an 89 percent attendance rate last year, when the goal was 92 percent.

Students at Durfee High are considered chronically tardy if they are late without a valid excuse five times per term, Thibault said.

In Massachusetts, students are required to attend school from age 6 to 16. After that, a student can drop out with parental consent. Juvenile courts can punish students who do not attend school regularly, and their parents. This, however, is often an intervention of last resort, because it might push students away from school instead of enticing them to return.

“We’re really trying to address the root cause of absenteeism,’’ said Philip Jackson, director of alternative education for the Boston school system.

Jackson said Boston is putting together a new plan to tackle truancy and attendance issues at schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Celebrity wake-up calls would be used, said Jackson. He said he has presented the idea to the superintendent and her top administrators, “and there’s some deep interest. I think we’re giving it a serious look.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at