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Preventing high school dropouts – in kindergarten?

This story is part of the Innovation Trail's partnership with FRONTLINE's Dropout Nation. You can read the other reports here.

The Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) received good news last year: its four-year graduation rate rose by seven percent.

Still, nearly half the district’s high school students failed to earn a diploma.

The struggling urban school system continues to look for dramatic fixes. This year, the district is starting in Kindergarten.

Ready Freddy

With pencils in hand and name tags adorning desks, Mrs. Brady’s students at School 45 are in a classroom for the first time. As kindergarteners, they’re part of the BPS class of 2025.

"Raise your hands if you had a good summer!" Brady exclaims. "Now raise two hands if you had a great summer!"

While most students happily play along, one wailing boy is not eager to begin his scholastic career. Begging to be sent home, the young man cries and whines in fits.

The sight and sound of a crying child is common in kindergarten, says Nadia Nashir, principal of School 45. In many cases, this is enough for parents to keep their kids out of school, among a litany of other reasons they cite.

But this year, BPS isimplementing a new program in five of its most underperforming schools with the aim of keeping students coming back to class every day.

Students notice lilypad decals lining the hallways. Eventually, they encounter someone dressed in giant fuzzy frog costume jumping, pumping fists and giving thumbs up gestures.

This is Ready Freddy, and histheme song is piped through the school:

I’m gonna make new friends, read lots of stories

Learn my letters and numbers too

And I can’t wait ‘til I can show you

All the things I’m gonna learn to do

Are you Ready Freddy?

Ready to have some fun

Are you Ready Freddy?

I’ll see you at school, everyone!

Already, the green mascot has made a connection with students at School 45, says Nashir. 

“They gave him a high five, like he was a good friend of theirs: ‘Oh, Ready Freddy give me a hug.’ It was a different kind of environment,” says Nashir. “Last school year I remember my kindergarten teacher having to put a bookshelf near her door because students were running out.”

Literacy by 3rd grade, or else

Buffalo Public Schools officials are hoping Ready Freddy turns around years of alarmingly low rates for attendance and graduation.

The animated amphibian, equipped with a school year's worth of  activities and reinforcement, will try to instill a love of school among the district’s youngest students.

“...there’s always a message of, ‘School is a great place to be. We want you here every day. We miss you when you’re out.’ And at the end of the day, making sure that they’re set to come back the next day,” says Nicole Bycina, director of attendance improvement with Erie 1 BOCES.

Ready Freddy is an import from the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, which created the program in 2006 to create better perceptions about school among students in urban districts. 

Absences from a student's first days in Kindergarten can set a trend that shapes the child’s whole school experience, say educators. 

“[But] if you can get children to school the first day, they are much more likely to come every day,” says Bycina.

Continued poor attendance leads to low achievement and illiteracy. Students that cannot read by third grade are much more unlikely to graduate high school.

“When you get to fourth grade, the skills get a lot [more] difficult. You are expected to read to learn. You’re reading social studies books and science textbooks to learn information, not to learn how to read,” says Nashir.

By encouraging youngsters to associate fun with school, the Ready Freddy program tries to create the good attendance and learning habits education officials hope will carry on through to high school graduation, 13 years later.

“Your dream of making sure your child graduates from high school and goes on to college is our dream as well,” Nashir tells parents, assembled at a Ready Freddy kickoff event.

A cartoon frog = for parents, too.

While Ready Freddy is a spritely cartoon frog, the program is as much for parents as it is for students, according to Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for educational services for BPS.

Ultimately, school attendance comes down to guardians and their willingness to engage with their childrens' education, says Keresztes. Ready Freddy tries to drill into parents that education is essential to a child's development and success in life – all with the soft edge and loveable spirit of an animated amphibian.

“When parents are given an opportunity to be welcomed, and encouraged and see that the school is really theirs, it doesn’t belong to some other entity, it belongs to them, they will step up and want to be a part of school as much as they can,” says Keresztes. “We want our children to tell their parents, ‘I don’t want to miss a single day of school because I love going to my school.'"

BPS officials are not yet predicting specific outcomes for Ready Freddy, as the effort is merely weeks old. But  anecdotal evidence shows that the program has improved School 45’s attendance so far this year.

If these preliminary results hold and the district can find further funding, this education-loving frog character could hop into all BPS schools in the coming years.

Plus, many more parents are accompanying children to school, says principal Nashir; which does not normally happen.

“Children are very observant. And they notice that mom and dad met the teachers, are happy with the teachers," says Nashir. "If mom and dad think this is a safe place, then I too find this to be a safe place (too)."

Which is perhaps why teachers are also reporting fewer criers this year, says Nashir.

You can follow reporter Daniel Robison on twitter @robisonrobison.