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Dialogue continues over poor student attendance

Mike Desmond/wbfo news

While attendance has been an issue in Buffalo Public Schools for years, there is increasing concern about the inability of students to learn if they don't show up for class.

Citizen Action held a public meeting Tuesday night at the West Hertel Academy to talk about the issue and drew a small, concerned crowd. 

Stakeholders are not sure how bad the situation is because it's not clear if the computer attendance system is used completely.

"There's usually pretty serious reasons why they're not there," said Martin Luther King School science teacher Eve Shippens.  "One of my students is actually an orphan and doesn't have a very stable home life. When, he's not in school, we can't be sure he's eating. So, it's a real concern when he's not there because we know it's a health and safety issue as well as educational issue."

Shippens said she has some students with serious attendance issues and some others who take a lot of time off. She sees a direct connection between being there and learning.

Student Support Services Director Heath Frisch is the point man on attendance. Frisch said school attendance needs a community-wide push. "Everybody has a responsibility to ensure children are in school, so I don't think there is a magic potion or silver bullet that would solve the challenges that districts like Buffalo have. I think everybody needs to get together and work together," said Frisch.
Frisch has been circulating a draft program to deal with the problem amidst talk of the need for more attendance teachers to work with students. He said the district is looking at its massive data files for ways to get students into classroom chairs.

"We're position ourselves to do that to look at some better and different early warning indicators and folks that can identify kids, students that are progressing with higher levels of absenteeism and reaching out to those families, reaching out to those students understanding how we as a district can provide additional support," Frisch responded.

William Yelder, a graduate of Buffalo schools, said the obsession with testing has taken some parts of the school day away which might actually help.

"In school, you generally had recess. That time that people are looking at as just time for kids to sit around, that's not what it's about. That's time for kids to get their thoughts together with all the stress that's going on in asking them: I'm taking this test, I'm taking this test. Now, I'm going to recess and I can sit down here and get my thoughts together. They have taken that out of the classroom," said Yelder.

Teachers have complained in the past they are judged on the academic performance of students who don't show up often.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.