This week, WUWM’s “Getting There” series is looking into the issue of truancy in Milwaukee’s public schools. Today, we visit another group working to improve attendance rates in MPS buildings.
It’s just after seven o’clock on a Thursday morning at Milwaukee’s Rogers Street Academy.
Eight young adults, ranging in age from 18 to 24, line the hallways. Their cheers welcome students for another day of class.
“G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G, good morning! Good morning!” they chant.
Smiling among the group’s ranks is Ebony Kirkendoll. She says the task becomes easier as the year progresses.
“Let me tell you, I’m not a morning person, but you learn to have that energy for that burst of ten minutes and then go, where’s the coffee?!” she laughs.
Despite what Kirkendoll tells you, she’s full of energy. And in this role, she needs it.
Kirkendoll is what’s called a “corps member” with City Year, a national organization that’s run a branch in Milwaukee for the last six years. It brings in young adults, mostly college grads, to work in urban classrooms. Right now, 100 corps members serve alongside teachers and principals in 11 MPS buildings.
The goal of City Year is to increase Milwaukee’s graduation rate. Part of that work is doing small things, such as greeting students in the morning.
Bigger picture, the group focuses on the “ABC’s”: attendance, behavior and course performance.
“It doesn’t take a research scientist to tell you, you need to show up if you’re going to be able to learn and grasp material, and excel academically,” says Jason Holton, director of City Year Milwaukee.
Holton says any student with below average attendance is 75 percent more likely to drop out of high school. That’s why attendance tops the list of City Year’s responsibilities.
Plus, MPS is throwing its weight behind getting 95 percent attendance across the district this year. In order to reach that goal, it’s relying on City Year for help.
After Ebony Kirkendoll gives students a rousing greeting every morning at Rogers, she heads upstairs. She’s in charge of the eighth grade classroom.
She walks in, scans the room, and makes a few marks on the clipboard she’s carrying.
“So I only have one…two. I have two people absent,” she counts. “I don’t have to count really, I can just look and tell who’s missing from their seat. You get that familiar!”
Once she’s taken attendance, Kirkendoll returns to the City Year office. There, she calls the homes of the kids she marked absent.
Two kids missing is normal for Kirkendoll’s assigned class. Leaders say Rogers has some of the best attendance among the buildings City Year serves – around 93 percent, on average. Other City Year schools aren’t so fortunate; some regularly record closer to 70 percent of kids showing up.
“We have pockets of difficult situations in our attendance,” says Paola Felix-Encarnacion, who oversees attendance for City Year Milwaukee. “We have to modify our programming across the schools, so we’re still having them understand our work is to get the students to school.”
Felix-Encarnacion helps schools figure out the main reasons students are missing.
“If I know why students are missing, then I can influence some change,” she says. “If it’s medical, maybe we can do a health fair and bring parents in. If it’s transportation, then we can figure out do we need more buses? Is there something in the budget that can help? If it’s school climate, then we’re playing games and trying to high-five students.”
“Since our corps members don’t make home visits, [phone calls are] a way to build a connection with a parent,” says City Year director Jason Holton. “We’ve prioritized that to continue to build those bridges and connections.”
And relationships, Holton says, are key to his organization’s ability to assist local schools. Corps members must establish themselves as a resource for parents in the community as well as teachers in the classroom.
Yet, corps member Ebony Kirkendoll says the most important relationship she and her colleagues make is with the students.
“I’ve definitely had students be like, ‘I only came because you’re here,’” Kirkendoll recounts. “Hearing that is like, well, one step in the right direction. Now let’s get you here because you love to learn. But one step in the right direction, because you came to school, and that’s the start. You can’t learn if you’re not here.”