By Carol Tannenhauser
Recently, the West Side Rag went to visit PS 36, on Amsterdam Avenue and 122nd Street. A celebration was taking place in the cafeteria. The Rockets, a group of about 25 children, ranging from preschoolers to fifth graders, were being honored for their attendance records. In fact, attendance records were what had gotten them into the Rockets in the first place. Theirs had been the worst in the school.
“But they’re on their way up,” said Karen Redlener, an Upper West Sider who created a program that helped make it happen. Called “Healthy and Ready To Learn” (HRL), it is an offshoot of the Children’s Health Fund (CHF), a nonprofit organization co-founded by Karen, with her husband, Dr. Irwin Redlener, and singer-songwriter Paul Simon, in 1987.
“Around the city, there’s an increased focus on improving school attendance,” Karen explained. “In our school and quite a few others, chronic absenteeism is between 35 and 40 percent. That means 35 to 40 percent of the students miss, at least, 18 days, and many miss up to 36 days, or two months of school, every year. They fall further and further behind.
“Schools in low-income communities have higher rates of absenteeism, because of so many different challenges,” Karen went on. “There’s a pretty high percentage here of children who live in temporary housing. That means, living in shelters or doubled up. The transportation, the unpredictability of their schedules, all of that adds challenges to their ability to get here. The Rockets are kids who got extra attention from HRL to help them improve their attendance and address any health issues that we identified.”
But what about the parents, aren’t they the ones who are struggling to get their kids to school?
”Correct,” Karen said. “Especially in elementary school, it’s about engaging the families, helping them with whatever it is that’s preventing them from getting their kids to school. HRL has what we call ‘a strength-based approach,’ which means we focus on the resilience and strengths that the parents and families bring to life, and help them in ways that are supportive and positive.”
The celebration in the cafeteria was filled with parents and other caretakers.
HRL is a pilot program that addresses health issues impacting learning and attendance. Currently, it operates in one other NYC public elementary school in the Bronx. HRL teams, including a site manager and a mental health counselor/art therapist, were placed in both schools. HRL also relies on alliances with other nonprofits to provide dental, hearing, and vision screenings to the entire school. Here, too, attendance is a factor.
“I had a child come up to me and say, ‘My friend got glasses. Why didn’t I get glasses?’ said Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D, MPH, the director of HRL in both schools. “Unfortunately, I had to say, ‘Well, you weren’t here on the day the vision doctor came.’” (Note: the “vision doctor” will be back shortly after the new year.) Jacob (below), a fifth grader, was present that day, thanks to the combined efforts of his grandmother, his mother, and HRL.
“We went through the whole process,” Rosa, Jacob’s grandmother said. His mother is an EMS dispatcher, who used to work five days a week. “I would bring him to school, but when I got sick I had no one to take him,” Rosa explained. “I didn’t trust him going alone.” After working with the HRL team, the family made attendance a priority. Jacob’s mom was able to change her schedule to work 12-hour shifts, three days a week. Rosa is able to handle the other days. ”Now, I monitor his absences like a job,” she said, “because it affects his schoolwork.”
“I love this approach because these families aren’t usually celebrated,” said Wenimo. ”These are usually the families that get a million phone calls, ‘Why aren’t you bringing your child to school?’”
“We emphasize the positive not the punitive,” Karen added. And it’s paying off. “Last year, chronic absenteeism at the school declined by six percentage points,” she said.
The principal of PS 36, Heather JnBaptist, is positively ecstatic about HRL. “I’m overwhelmed and humbled and thankful,” she said. “Without this program, my children would not be content. Any problem they have it addresses, wholeheartedly. It has changed the culture of the school.”
For more information about Healthy and Ready to Learn, click here.