In Far Rockaway, Poverty and Chronic Absenteeism Go Hand in Hand

The apartment complex on Dix Avenue is a squat, utilitarian cluster of five buildings that residents sometimes call “The Shelter Dump,” because so many families move here straight from the city’s homeless shelter system. Most residents pay their rent with Section 8 vouchers. It’s situated halfway between the bay and beach in Far Rockaway, where nearly 17 percent of the populations makes less than $10,000 a year, and 30 percent of the population did not graduate from high school.

When Meaghan Holley, the director of Rockaway Rising, a community-based organization that works with youth and families, started visiting this apartment complex last year, there were nearly 75 children living there who were not attending school on a regular basis, in her estimation.

Chronic absenteeism - defined by the Department of Education as having 14 or more absences over the course of a school year, excused or unexcused - stubbornly persists in Far Rockaway.  At PS 104 Bayswater, the elementary most children in the complex attend, the rate has been declining every year but is still nearly twice the national average.

Chronic absenteeism in elementary schools is one of the best indicators that a student will eventually drop out of high school. “If you’re not in school for the fundamental years, then what happens is, the gap widens, and it widens every year, and by the time they get to middle school, the gap is so wide that they’re slated for dropout,” says Katie Grady, the Principal at PS 104 Bayswater. It has also been linked to future incarceration, according to Kim Nauer from The Center for New York City Affairs and one of the top experts in chronic absenteeism in the city.  “Their first step in that world is when they start missing too much school. It’s all correlated,” says Nauer.

The primary characteristic of students who miss a lot of school is that they live in or close to poverty, according to a 2012 report by Dr. Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins education researcher and chronic absenteeism expert.  “For some kids, going to school feels really far removed from their lives. Maybe they are more worried about putting food on the table, or keeping a younger sibling safe, and school doesn’t feel relevant,” Holley says. They may also be experiencing health issues that are directly related to their poor living environment. Asthma, a condition that leads to a lot of school absences at PS 104, according to Grady, has been linked not only to environmental pollution but to the presence of mold and vermin in the child’s home environment.  A few months ago, a 7-year-old boy in the apartment complex broke his collarbone when a gate outside the building fell on him. He spent six weeks at home playing video games, according to Holley.

To combat chronic absenteeism, Holley came up with a plan that was uncomplicated: she would personally escort the kids to school each morning. Last March she borrowed a church bus from her pastor and started the #No Excuses Bus, which runs from the apartment building to PS 104 every morning before school. She starts at 7 a.m. with the hardest kids; the ones who need to be pulled from their beds and told to get in the shower. On a recent Monday morning, it was 40 degrees and drizzling. There would be no chance of a sunrise today. It was one of those days when it is too cold for a rain jacket but just enough rain to soak through your winter coat. It would not be easy to get the kids to school today.

Holley moves through the building with a mix of determination and cheer. She knocked softly but briskly on the first door. The mom, Shaneequa, had a heart attack a few years ago and now sleeps until the afternoon. “Good morning, Love Bugs, it’s a beautiful day!” she said through the door. “Psyche. It’s actually really gross out. But we still have to get up and go to school!” She jiggled the door handle unsuccessfully while simultaneously pulling out her phone to call the mom. It went straight to voicemail. Without skipping a beat, she used Facebook to call the children’s older sister, who finally answered the door. Inside the apartment, the gas burners on the stove were set on high, their blue flames three inches tall in order to keep the apartment warm. The mother was asleep on a sheetless pull-out couch in the living room. There were missing doors on the kitchen cabinets, and huge spots of bare plaster on the wall. In the corner lay a stack of framed posters, yet to be hung. Later in the week, Shaneequa would spend three days in the local hospital after experiencing heavy chest pains.

Holley went straight to a bedroom in the back that is shared by three siblings. When she opened the bedroom door, it came off in her hands. She shrugged, set it aside and knelt by the lower bunk bed, shared by two sisters.  She scratched backs, rubbed legs and finally pulled one of the kids out of bed. “Why you always be dragging me?” the youngest, Zariah, mumbled.

Outside, more kids are in front of the apartment building, waiting on the bus. They stand stoically on the steps, hoods and coats drawn tight around their three-foot-tall, half-asleep frames. On the bus, they’re lured into singing contests and chants and snacks are handed out. “When we started the program, we had to go into most of the kids homes and get them out of bed,” Holley says. “This year, most of the kids are waiting out in front for the bus, so there’s been a lot of improvement.”  There are lots of hugs, high-fives and pep talks as the kids are loaded onto the bus. The bus reads, “Every School, Every Day,” a tagline also used by the Department of Education, although Holley seems unimpressed by the federal government initiative. As the bus pulls away, Holley waves and screams, “Have the best day ever!”

Last year at PS 104 they had their highest attendance rate in twenty years, and their chronic absenteeism rate was at an all-time low of 27 percent. Grady attributes this to a schoolwide focus on attendance. There are parties and rewards for perfect attendance and phone calls home if a student is absent two days in a row. But still, there are those that are severely chronically absent, she estimates 10-15 percent miss more than four school days a month. “I have a long list on my desk of chronically absent students,” Grady says.

Holley is convinced that you can’t fix chronic absenteeism without fixing poverty. “It’s a symptom of poverty. It’s a red flag if a kid’s not going to school. Chronic absenteeism is not the reason they’re failing out of school.  It’s an indication that something is going on with them and that their whole world is falling apart,” Holley says.  

Links to the stories on Youth Today and Juvenile Justice Information Exchange here and here (behind a paywall.)