Monday, April 11, 2011

Barriers to Attendance

When you think of your high school days you may remember the excitement of freshman year and even better, the thrill of knowing that you’ll soon be attending college. But for a lot of adolescents in New York City high school brings a whole new level of complexity and stress even before they start their freshman year.

In eighth grade students apply to as many as 12 high schools they would like to attend out of the hundreds that exist in New York City. The city’s high schools have different focuses (technology, arts, etc.) and differing levels of academic requirements (some are highly selective according to exam scores, grades, etc). Given the diversity of options students need a lot of guidance in determining which schools will make the best fit for them. What I have seen often in working with inner-city high school students is that they did not apply to schools which are the best fit according to their interests, academic standing, and/or location; they may have applied to certain schools for the wrong reasons (i.e., the schools their friends applied to); and in some cases they were not accepted into any of the schools that they chose. It’s key for parents to guide their children’s selection of high schools and to be knowledgeable about what schools will be best fit in terms of academics, focus, and location. And, of course, students' grades and attendance rates in middle school play a crucial role in determining which high schools they can attend.

From my experience working with high school students, the daily commute is one of the biggest “barriers to attendance”. Some of our students travel up to two hours each way to school every day. The commute is exhausting and unsafe in neighborhoods that are desolate during early morning hours, and when combined with other issues like being forced to look after siblings, being bullied, and health problems, it dissuades students from attending school. The more school such students miss the more disengaged they become from their education. It’s a slippery slope that all too often leads them to being held back and dropping out from school altogether.

Part of my job is to find ways to get students motivated to come to school despite the hardships they face. I do this by engaging students in activities they show interest in and by building a sense of positive community through our small counseling groups, which provide students with a safe environment where they can share about the issues in their personal lives. The groups also help make school a place where students feel they are listened to and supported. For other students just knowing that Partnership with Children social workers are aware if they have shown up for school or not helps them feel cared for and acknowledged. These seemingly small measures go a long way in motivating high school students to come to school and to do their best.

These are just a few of the factors contributing to the complexity of attending high school in New York City. In my next post I’ll write about helping our students understand the system of earning academic credits and how credits impact their standing in school and potential to graduate in four years.

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