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Chelsea High experimenting with lures to boost attendance

School attendance is not improving

When a student asked Chelsea High School principal Morton Orlov for two weeks off last winter, he was surprised to hear that he would be forced to drop out, at least temporarily.

But Orlov was even more surprised that the student would make the unusual request. He did not have a family emergency, but was requesting the time to go on a family vacation to his South American home.

"I think there's a lack of acclimatization," Orlov said of some students who have recently immigrated from other countries. "People with kids here, the school calendar drives their lives. Those who are not acclimatized don't care about the school calendar because they're not used to it."

Students and parents unfamiliar with the nuances of the school calendar year is just one of the many challenges facing urban school districts like Chelsea as they try to improve their attendance rates -- as mandated by federal education laws, Orlov said.

In order to boost attendance, Chelsea High was the first school in the state to implement an incentive program last year that would pay students up to $100 a year if they managed to maintain a perfect attendance record. Orlov said the program worked -- sort of.

"Mathematically, did it improve the overall attendance? The answer is no," he said. "On the 'yes' side, the number of kids who worked toward perfect attendance went up significantly. The incentive program really only attracted, in my mind, kids on the front side of that slope -- the kids that were inclined to come to school anyhow."

After the implementation of the perfect - attendance reward program, end-of-school-year statistics showed a small dip to 89.6 percent from an attendance rate of 90 percent the previous year.

"As urban school districts go, I think there are some districts that would be happy enough to have our numbers," Orlov said. "But it's not good enough to where we want to be."

The only time high school attendance rates are taken into account by the state is for district accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said state Department of Education spokesman Nate Mackinnon.

With the implementation of the pay program, Chelsea High transitioned from a punitive attendance policy to a compensatory one. But going from one extreme to the next did not help matters, said Guy A. Santagate , chairman of the Boston University Management Team , which runs Chelsea's public schools.

"We thought paying kids was a good plan. We had better expectations. It's hard to determine why it didn't work," Santagate said. "I was surprised it didn't. It's hard to change people's habits and it's hard to change their styles. Orlov is right. We were preaching to the choir."

Superintendent Thomas Kingston said the amount of money may not have been enough to entice some students. But with money coming from private donations, Kingston said, "we couldn't offer any more money."

"It worked for the best students and most motivated, which we're happy to support, but for students who were indifferent, it wasn't enough," Kingston said.

Chelsea High's attendance rate improved over the past six years, but has now "flat-lined" at 90 percent , "which isn't good enough," Orlov said. Excited at the prospect of the pay program, Orlov, along with Kingston, agreed to remove some of the punitive aspects of the previous policy, such as the elimination of excused absences.

"We, perhaps, overreached a little bit," Orlov said. "Some structure is at least necessary."

The policy was revised in January to include both punishments and rewards. This year, Orlov is aiming for a 92 percent attendance rate, which is "doable" but "still a challenge," he said. For now, Orlov is encouraged by the statistics from the first day of school in September, which -- at 92.6 percent -- gave the high school one of its best openings ever, he said.

Orlov noted that the high rate was short-lived.

"We've had a couple of dips in the past couple of weeks," he said, "and we're still having trouble with Mondays."

Orlov acknowledges it is difficult to reach out to the 9 percent of the 1,500 students who don't come to school, because of a lack of resources. Other than daily automated morning and evening calls to all the absentees, it is difficult to have meaningful engagement with those kids, such as personal conversations or counseling, he said.

As part of the policy reform in January, Orlov formed an attendance review team made up of high school teachers, counselors, and administrators to make personal calls and meet with the most problematic students.

Compounding the problem are issues such as language barriers with parents, a limited ability to go door-to-door to talk to parents, 17- to 20-year-old students who have tired of school and are looking for jobs, a high student-teacher ratio, and a revolving door of students who move in and out of the district, Orlov said.

"Many dropouts don't have e-mail or telephone. This isn't the suburbs where you send an e-mail to mom and dad and they respond," he said. "We have to figure out the outreach piece. . . . There's no one factor, but many, many factors that come together that cause kids not to be able to attend. I can only imagine the lack of structure out there. We have a large tardiness rate that exceeds our absentee rate."

Santagate said that he is disappointed by the attendance rate, but not discouraged.

"We've dealt with a minority population for 100 years in Chelsea, and we'll keep on dealing with it in the future," Santagate said.

Orlov, a 23-year military veteran whose first foray into public schools was becoming Chelsea High's principal in 2004, said it takes a lot to shock him, but added that the experience has opened his eyes.

"I probably wasn't cognizant of all the variables that impact attendance at school and success at school," he said.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at

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